My bossy older sister Ruthie was always making up rules for me to follow. When I was five and she was eight, she pulled me into the living room closet and shut the door behind us. We perched on boxes in the dark, and she fumbled for my hands.
“Becky, promise me you’ll never tell anyone what Doug does to us.”
As she squeezed my hand, I held my breath, feeling relief yet fear. This was the first time I knew that our relative who often visited took my big sister into the bedroom, too. I nodded, but of course, Ruthie couldn’t see me in the dark.
She squeezed my hand harder. “Promise!”
“Okay,” I whined, confused by her insistence. Doug had already told me, as he laid the pistol he carried at his waist on the floor beside the bed, that I should never tell anyone our secret. Not even Ruthie. Now she was making me talk about it.
“But it’s icky.”
“I know, I know.” Ruthie hugged me when she heard the tears in my voice. “I have an idea. We’ll hold hands. All the time. He only takes us when we’re alone—so we’ll always stick together.”
As we emerged from the closet, blinking against the light, I felt safer.
I was the youngest of nine siblings. When our brothers who were one and three years older than Ruthie saw us walking around the house hand in hand, they rolled their eyes. No doubt Ruthie couldn’t bear their scorn, so our agreed-upon bond didn’t last long. The next time Doug came over, he found me alone in the dining room. As he scooped me up and headed for the stairs, no one was around to see me scanning the room for Ruthie. Our pact had shattered. Still, I couldn’t find it in my heart to blame her. It was impossible to live like paper-doll cutouts forever joined at the wrist, although I wouldn’t have minded if it kept me away from Doug.
One pact Ruthie followed through on was her promise to prepare me for first grade. Our family was too poor to send me to kindergarten—it wasn’t free in Minnesota in 1962. When I found out that most five-year-olds went to school half days, I feared falling behind all the others. Ruthie sympathized. Every day when she came home, I made her play school with me and begged her to teach me everything she’d learned that day.
When I finally started first grade, my rapture at joining the ranks of the learners was cut short by a double tragedy that fall. Mom was committed to the Moose Lake State Hospital for schizophrenia, and my brother Markie, who had been born with cerebral palsy, was sent away to Cambridge State Hospital to live. Did I say two tragedies? A third piggy-backed on the others. Under the guise of helping us out, Doug spent more time at our home—which meant more trips upstairs with him when people thought he was taking care of me.
Ruthie and I consoled ourselves with the hope that Mom would be home for Christmas. Instead, she sent us a package by mail. Inside were two ugly, scratchy stuffed dogs. One was black and one was dark brown. Sitting on the top bunk together, Ruthie and I squeezed the wretched things to our chests as if they were Mom.
“Mine will be Reddy,” Ruthie declared, claiming the brown one, which was almost cute. “And yours will be Siggie.”
I looked from the black dog in my arms to her face and stared at her. “Cigarette?”
“No! For Mom’s name—Sigrid—get it? Each dog is like half of Mom.”
I thought that was dumb. I barely knew Mom’s first name, and I didn’t want half of her—I wanted all of her. And not in the form of a stiff, oddly-shaped fake animal. But since I couldn’t think of better names for the miserable things, I nodded.
Two months later we joyfully welcomed Mom home. With a new energetic manner and bright eyes, she settled into her rocking chair and pulled me onto her lap. Suspiciously, I examined her permanent-wave hairdo and her lower jaw, which protruded oddly due to her new dentures. I wasn’t sure what to make of those changes. But her soft arms circled my waist in the same old way, and her lap felt as comfortable as ever. Yes, she was my mom, and she was back where she belonged. I felt safe again.
That summer Doug’s family invited Ruthie and me to join them at William O’Brien State Park. I’d never been to a campground before. Doug had a camper-trailer he could hook up to the back of his car. I was fascinated by the little house on wheels that had a bed, a kitchen, and even a tiny bathroom.
We learned that the campground had a wonderful swimming beach. I wasn’t a swimmer—I could only dog paddle—but I loved the water, especially when I had something to float on. Our relatives had rented some big, fat inner tubes—big enough for two people—and the kids were sitting and bouncing on them on the patchy grass in front of their trailer.
Ruthie and I joined them. As we bounced in our swimsuits, the rubber, already heating in the sun, seared the backs of my thighs. I couldn’t wait to get those gigantic tubes into the cool lake. Every bounce diffused a faint scent of heated rubber into the air as our giggles resounded across the campground.
Finally, with the cooler packed and sunscreen applied, everyone was ready to head for beach.
But the thought of water reminded me. “Wait! I have to go to the bathroom!”
“Just go in the lake,” Ruthie suggested. “Everyone else does.”
“Ew!” I grimaced. “I never do.”
Ruthie rolled her eyes as if she remembered something I didn’t. I contorted my face into an agonized plea.
“Okay, hurry up,” Ruthie said, dropping her inner tube with an exasperated sigh. “We’ll wait for you.”
When I touched the camper’s metal door, it shocked me, and I jumped back in pain and surprise. I’d already learned not to touch the camper’s shiny, tin-foil-like exterior because every time I did, it returned a static shock. Even the door handle gave shocks—like a toll demanded by a dastardly villain. If only I’d recognized those weird shocks as danger signals and stayed far away from that camper. But knowing others were waiting on me, I pushed past my irritation and rushed inside.
From within the tiny bathroom, I heard the camper door open and close. Maybe Ruthie had come to goad me along. Exiting the lavatory, I bumped into Doug, who towered over me. I gasped. At six feet, he had to slump to avoid pressing his curly black hair to the ceiling. I tried to scoot past him, but he held me back.
Fear gripped my stomach. Not now. Not here.
I squirmed beneath his large hand that clenched my shoulder. “They’re waiting for me.” I pictured Ruthie sitting on the inner tube just outside the door. “I have to go.”
“Nope.” He smirked. “They already left. I told them I’d bring you down.”
I broke into a sweat. The stuffy camper was a prison, soon to be a torture chamber. How could Ruthie do this? She knew, though no one else did, what Doug would do when he got me alone.
“I’m missing all the fun,” I whined.
“No you’re not.” He winked, tousled my hair, and locked the door. “We’re gonna make our own.”
He laid his pistol on the narrow counter next to the miniature sink. Suddenly nothing about this rolling house was cute anymore. I spied a knife on the cutting board. In my little hand it would be no match for the gun in his big one. I obeyed his command and slipped out of my swimsuit.
Years later, when processing the sexual abuse, I wondered why I hadn’t simply screamed. Surely a nearby camper would have heard, and that would have been the end of Doug once and for all. Perhaps God had a rescuer at the ready. Scripture says He always provides a way to escape temptation—and I, brimming with hate, was tempted to stab my tormenter. But I’d been trained to obey adults, and a gun within the abuser’s reach seals the deal. Surely Doug would never have used it on a person—a child—in broad daylight, but I didn’t know that.
When Doug and I arrived at the water half an hour later, Ruthie was splashing and shouting with the other swimmers, having a great time. Rage boiled up inside. “It’s all your fault!” I wanted to scream, but because of our pact to never discuss what Doug did to us, I couldn’t even tell her what happened. Despite my piercing glares, she ignored me. I plopped down on the warm sand, knowing the water would sting my body where it was already throbbing. Even oversized inner tubes couldn’t entice me into the lake.
Although Mom had returned from the state hospital, over the next two years Doug still found ways to get me alone. I followed Ruthie’s rule and never spoke of it, but I guessed it was still happening to her, too.
During my third grade year, Ruthie and I became friends with two sisters who’d moved in down the street. Vicky, a year older than I, was my companion, while Ruthie played with Lynn, who was a year younger than she. One day after we invited them over, Ruthie and Lynn had a falling out. Instead of going home, the girls switched friends for the rest of the afternoon. Ruthie snatched Vicky away from me, so Lynn and I ended up in my bedroom.
I was miffed. Why couldn’t everyone just get along? Although I wasn’t crazy about Vicky, we had fun together. Lynn, on the other hand, always treated me like a baby, even though I was only two grades below her.
Since they had no bunkbeds at their house, Lynn wanted to sit on our top bunk. “C’mon,” she said, boosting herself onto the upper mattress from the end of the bed. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
That intrigued me. With our heads grazing the ceiling, we sat cross-legged facing each other.
“So,” she whispered, looking around furtively even though no one else was in the room, “do you know how babies are made?”
I’d actually never given the matter much thought. Married women had babies, I knew, but not if they didn’t want to. When I was little, I used to beg Mom for a younger brother or sister. If she could, she always gave me whatever I asked for—brown sugar fudge, vanilla milk, a pinch of bread dough. But to my dismay, her response to my plea for a younger sibling was to tell me to pretend Markie was the youngest.
Taking my silence as a no, Lynn went on to explain the act of procreation in simple but frank terms. She studied me as she spoke, anticipating my reaction.
I shrugged. “I know all about that. Doug does that to us all the time.”
Lynn’s jaw dropped, and her eyes grew big as lightbulbs. “He does not! You’re lying!”
I calmly explained it was true, but when I remembered Ruthie’s rule, a knot twisted my stomach. She’d be mad at me for breaking the promise I’d made in the living room closet four years ago. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone. Promise you won’t tell Ruthie I told you. It’s our secret, okay?”
Lynn nodded. “I promise.”
That night a flurry of phone calls, loaded looks, and hushed conversations broke out at my house, but I didn’t connect the mysterious ruckus to my conversation with Lynn. Ruthie gave me the cold shoulder all night.
A day or two later, she angrily confronted me. I had blabbed, and Doug had been arrested.
At my confused expression, Ruthie explained that what Doug had done to us was against the law. That possibility had never crossed my mind, but when I thought about it, I was glad our country had a law like that.
“Then he can’t bother us anymore.” I tried to fathom Ruthie’s agitation. “That’s good, right?”
“Oh, Becky!” Ruthie’s sigh branded me as hopeless. “Never mind!”
She huffed away.
Understanding began to dawn when Dad took Ruthie and me to the clinic. In the waiting room, she fidgeted and glared at me. Dad fastened his eyes on the floor. Ruthie went in first, and she was gone a long time. When she came back, her face was bright red, and she wouldn’t look at me.
Then it was my turn.
Though Dad hadn’t gone with Ruthie, he came with me. Since the doctor was the father of a girl in my class, I felt all the more embarrassed when he made me change into a thin gown and take my panties off. Dad lifted me onto a cold metal table, and the doctor told me to lie back and spread my legs. I looked at Dad, who reassured me with a nod. The doctor asked me one question, to which I said no, and after a few seconds of pain, he let me get dressed. Locking eyes with Dad, the doctor shook his head, and Dad looked relieved.
Ruthie wouldn’t talk to me at all for a while, but eventually I gleaned that her examination was worse than mine and that the doctor asked her lots of personal questions. She might have to testify against Doug, which would mean more embarrassment.
Even after Doug’s arrest, our family never spoke of the situation openly—at least in front of me. From what I recall—bits and pieces garnered from who knows where—Doug was admitted to a state mental hospital for evaluation before his trial. After a woman he befriended there was discharged, she helped him escape. He skipped state, as my brothers called it, so he never went to prison.
I never regretted spilling the beans to Lynn. She was right to tell her mom, even if it meant breaking her promise. If I’d known getting rid of Doug would be that easy—or that what he was doing was illegal—I’d have blabbed long before. Anyway, I was thrilled he was out of our lives, despite the repercussions for his wife and children—which were prolonged and severe.
For Ruthie, the abuse and its revelation were more traumatic because she was older, more physically developed, and more aware through it all. And while I’d only feared Doug shooting me, Ruthie had the added fear that if she ever told, her baby sister would pay with her life. The despicable pedophile had used that threat from the beginning to gain her submission and silence. That’s why she insisted I follow her rule. As horrible as the four-year ordeal was for me, it was exponentially worse for Ruthie.
When she was in her forties, Ruthie experienced a schizophrenic breakdown, and unlike Mom, she never recovered. Because of her mental illness, the cancer that should have been detected earlier claimed her life prematurely. Since childhood sexual abuse is a risk factor for schizophrenia, I’ll always wonder what role Doug played in her plunge into insanity.
For my part, for most of my life I was content to tell myself, “It was awful. I’m glad it stopped when it did. It was so much worse for Ruthie.” Without knowing it, I was still following Ruthie’s rule of silence, even when it came to my own thoughts. I didn’t realize that the deeply buried emotional aftershocks from such abuse required healing.
Those who have endured abuse know how it triggers unexpected, overblown reactions years later. One day I’d taken my teenagers to a rock climbing venue where the floor was covered with recycled rubber tire chips. I came home with a brutal headache. When my husband made a remark I disagreed with, hatred and rage simmered, then bubbled. I felt ready to erupt. I excused myself, suppressing my feelings as I almost always did. Later, trying to put it all in perspective, I wondered why the smell of rubber—which I still can’t tolerate—should make me so angry. Eventually I landed on the memory of bouncing on those rubber inner tubes outside that shockingly dangerous camper-trailer.
So the childhood sexual abuse was still there. Still affecting me. Eventually I scheduled time with a counselor to explore those effects. Dredging up memories like the camper incident wasn’t fun. But doing so helped me see the many ways that the abuse had shaped my relationships, causing me to acquiesce too easily to my boyfriends and husband and to fear my male bosses.
My deepest healing came not from counseling, but during private prayer. One day I asked God where He was during that camper-trailer experience, and I felt him tell me how grieved He was that his daughter was being treated that way. I told God that I couldn’t forgive Doug for that awful day—and all the other times. But grace to forgive and inner healing are supernatural—and God provided both for me as I relived that memory with him at my side. Healing is possible, but one has to seek it—it doesn’t just descend from the blue. And sometimes—often—it requires breaking old rules of silence that should never have been kept.
 I keep Doug’s relationship to our family vague and use a pseudonym to protect his innocent wife and children, who knew nothing of his perversion until it was exposed.
Its a well-told story. You are brave in sharing it.
Thank goodness for the #MeToo movement and its continued repercussions for thousands of women who have kept silent all these years. Me too. I agree with what you say: “Healing is possible, but one has to seek it—it doesn’t just descend from the blue. And sometimes—often—it requires breaking old rules of silence that should never have been kept.” I was once furious with God for not helping me. Outraged by his silence. But I hadn’t asked for help. I learned that I had to open my mouth and say something.