*Featured Artwork: “Nereide” By Matteo Bona
How My Father Groomed Me For Rape Culture
by Sheryl Burpee Dluginski
My newly developed curves seemed to give me a dangerous power over my father and other men, which troubled me because I couldn’t seem to discern its appropriate use.
When I was 16, my father and his third wife split up. By then, she’d been my stepmother for three years. After she moved out, my already abnormally close relationship with my father became even stranger. As a teenager, I felt lucky that my father was the “cool” permissive dad in town. I even counted him as one of my best friends. Putting up with the embarrassing overtly sexual jokes he made when he was drunk seemed a reasonable trade-off for his allowing my friends and me to drink and smoke pot in the house.
Now that he was single again, my father regularly confided in me about the details of his multiple romantic relationships and sought my opinions about his love life. His watchful eye on my developing body grew more piercing and his previously occasional comments on my weight and shape became frequent. The son of a prominent exercise physiologist, my father was a fitness fanatic long before it was trendy, a college gymnast and wrestler. Gymnastics was a passion of mine too, and my father often reminded me of the athletic benefit for gymnasts of staying slim.
“Those jeans are getting a little tight on you,” he said one afternoon during the high school gymnastics season. I winced, remembering that I had skipped a long afternoon run the day before, in order to finish the first draft of my college application essay.
“You don’t want that extra weight during competition season. Let me tell you how I used to drop a few pounds quickly before wrestling matches.”
My ears perked up. By this point, my secret late night food binges were becoming a regular occurrence, especially on those nights after my boyfriend, Mike and I had sex. My solution to the problem of the extra calories was to starve myself and run for hours the next day. But the pattern was getting harder to control.
So that afternoon, when my father described his program of severe calorie restriction, I didn’t tell him that it was very similar to what I was already doing on the days following my post-coital night time gorging. I just thanked him for the tips, relieved that maybe my extreme eating habits weren’t as shameful as I thought, since he shared them, and I resolved to drop the few extra pounds he’d noticed.
A few days later, on the morning of a gymnastics meet, I stopped by his shop office in the converted barn at the end of our driveway–-headquarters for his contracting business. I passed the workmen gathered in the main room and entered his small office at the back of the building. He looked surprised. “What are you doing out here this morning?”
“I wanted to let you know I have a meet today. Last week you said you’d like to see me do my back tuck sometime. I stuck it in practice yesterday, so I’m gonna throw it in my floor routine today. It’s a home meet at 4:00.”
“Oh, Jeez. I’ll try, but you know my afternoons can get pretty crazy. What time will you be up on floor?”
“We don’t find out our competition order until just before the meet starts, but it’s going to be sometime between 4:00 and 6:00.”
“Two hours is long time for me to sit around there waiting for one trick, hon. The business doesn’t run itself, you know. Don’t count on me, but good luck.”
Then, as if seeing me for the first time he said, “Wow, you’re lookin’ really fantastic today.”
I figured he was just trying to cushion the blow of his rejection with a rare compliment. “Thanks, Dad.”
“No. Really. I’m serious. You’ve dropped a few pounds since I saw you earlier in the week, haven’t you?” He looked me up and down. “And that’s a really nice outfit you have on there. Spin around for me.”
I obeyed. “Mmm hmmm. You’re looking really sharp this morning.”
A strange, murky sense that something was off kilter in his attention lurked in my mind but slipped away before I could identify it. Expression of approval of any sort from him was so unusual that I just basked in the glow of this one.
“Hey, guys,” he called out to the men who were standing around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, waiting for their assignments. “Look at my baby daughter here, all grown up. Isn’t she a sight for sore eyes?”
A few of the men voiced their agreement with the boss, carefully straddling the line between leering at the boss’s daughter and agreeing with him about her attractiveness.
My father didn’t show up for the gymnastics meet that afternoon, and he didn’t ask how it went, which turned out to be a relief. My unfueled muscles barely got me off the ground and I crashed to the floor on my hands and knees when I tried the back tuck. When I saw him a few days later, Dad seemed to have completely forgotten about the meet, though he clearly remembered my visit to his office.
“Your visit the other morning before you left for school was a real bright spot in my day,” he said.
“I didn’t stick my back tuck that day, by the way, so you didn’t miss anything.”
“Tsss-tsss-tsss.” He shook his head side to side slowly, pressing his tongue behind his upper teeth, making the familiar sound that meant he was disappointed in me. “Keep working at it. And please, come on out to the office, whenever you feel like saying good morning to your old man. That visit was such a nice surprise.”
So I began to make regular appearances in the shop each weekday morning, putting more effort and thought into my appearance. His comments grew increasingly suggestive.
As I left his office and headed across the main floor of the shop after giving him a peck on the cheek at his desk, he said, “She’s got some shape, doesn’t she, Jim?” He seemed to enjoy watching his employees squirm in discomfort, unsure how to respond.
“Looks like she’s 19, not 16, Mr. B.” old Jim Johnson, whom I’d known since I was a toddler, replied. I enjoyed that compliment, relieved at his deft attempt to muffle my father’s sexual overtones.
“I bet you wish she was….” one of the younger guys mumbled, and they all laughed uproariously, including my father. As my cheeks flushed, I quickened my step out the front door of the shop and hurried down the driveway. Though this new ritual made me vaguely uncomfortable, I craved the daily injection of strange joy that came with having finally found a way to please my father. Though the euphoria felt somehow dangerous and forbidden, I was hooked.
My already elaborate grooming routine grew more obsessive. With a researcher’s vigor, I analyzed and catalogued in my mind every comment that each outfit elicited from my father and his workers. Then I used the data to plan and fine-tune future outfits. My goal was to look sexy but not slutty. Sweaters just tight enough. Necklines just low enough. A demure little ribbon around my neck indicating “preppy good girl” to offset the tight pants and high heels.
I never acknowledged the workmen as they made their comments at my father’s behest. Sauntering across the paint-splattered floor, through the benzene air, and stepping up into the small office where he sat orchestrating the day’s business, I silently feigned confidence I didn’t feel, just like I did in my gymnastics routines. This was a performance I was putting on for my father, simply because it pleased him.
I’m not sure how long this morning ritual went on for – maybe several weeks or a few months. It finally ended though after my brother, who was three years older and worked for my father, brought it up one Friday night while we drank together before meeting up with our respective crews.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why do you come out to the shop and parade by all the guys every morning? You know they’re all hot for you, right?” My face glowed with shame, but I denied being aware of any such thing.
“Dad likes me to go out and say good morning to him before I go to school.”
“Yeah, well, it’s weird. He’s just showing you off to his men.” All the unsavory awareness I’d been trying to ignore shot through me like an electric jolt.
I changed the subject abruptly, but never again visited the shop in the morning. When my father asked a few days later where I’d been in recent mornings, I tried to answer as honestly as I could. “I feel kind of weird, like all the men are gawking at me.”
“You’re a very pretty girl, so that’s par for the course. Men like to look at girls with nice shapes like yours. You might as well learn to enjoy it.”
“Well, I’ve been getting to my first class late too much. I need to make it on time from now on so I don’t lose points from my average.”
His face formed an exaggerated childish pout that doused me in guilt. “I’ll come out again when I have time. It’s just…school is intense right now, and I need to get there a little early.” His sad nod sent a familiar blend of relief, guilt and anger into my solar plexus, but it registered in my mind only as that “yucky” feeling.
My newly developed curves seemed to give me a dangerous power over my father and other men, which troubled me because I couldn’t seem to discern its appropriate use. Was I an exhibitionist? A slut? Was what he had said about me needing to get used to men ogling me true, or was that just his odd perspective? These questions would continue to puzzle me for decades.
My simmering confusion about sex and my body was further stoked by my father’s probing into my love life with a level of interest and enthusiasm that I knew was not normal in a father-daughter relationship. At first, eager to please, I ignored my instincts and forced myself to give him snippets of the details I knew he wanted. What’s the harm? I thought, having never been taught about healthy boundaries. The answer to that question became humiliatingly clear to me, at our New Year’s Eve party, ringing in 1980, which also happened to be the one year anniversary of when Mike and I started dating.
“Hey, kid,” Uncle Lloyd said with an affectionate tap on my arm. “Your father tells me that you and this strapping young man here have been dating for a year now. Sounds like it’s getting serious.”
Mike looked down, grinning shyly. I shrugged, smiling too, feeling proud and grown up.
My father, eyes glassy, leaned over to Mike, jabbed him softly with an elbow and mumbled conspiratorially, “After a year, you must be getting some by now, huh, Mike?”
At first, I assumed I must have misheard my father, but Mike turned bright red and laughed awkwardly.
“Come on, tell us…Does she give good head?” he asked under his breath, again just loud enough for me and the others in our circle to overhear. Mike covered his face with one hand, shaking his head from side to side, tongue-tied and clearly discomfited.
“Sherry, dear!” Aunt Margaret said loudly, mercifully redirecting everyone’s attention. “Tell us about school and gymnastics. I hear you’re a straight A student!”
Ten years later, when I was 26, the flashback of my father trying to teach me how to give him a blow job when I was nine, would leave me doubled over and gasping for breath on a crowded NYC street. Soon after that, the memory of his quizzing my high school boyfriend about my fellatio skills would take on a whole new level of meaning. But at 16, I wrote it off as just another stupid thing my party animal father said when he was drunk.
That flashback was one of a torrent of repressed memories of sexual abuse by my father that began plaguing me during graduate school. At that point, I’d finally achieved financial independence from my father and against his wishes I’d begun to see a therapist about my increasingly self-destructive tendencies, unhealthy relationships with men and inability to focus on schoolwork. It wasn’t until I started therapy, as I attempted to answer the psychologist’s questions about the key events of my childhood, that I discovered an almost complete absence of memories from the ages of 8 through 11. Soon the flashbacks began spewing clues to fill in the mysterious void. The grueling process of sorting through the wasteland for bits and pieces of myself that I’d previously discarded ensued.
Apparently, the abuse stopped and my awareness of it was completely repressed by the time I was 12, because that’s when the normal fabric of memory picks up for me. Three years into treatment, I gathered the courage to confront my father with my memories and after initially denying it, he later admitted that yes, in fact, he had sexually abused me during that time. He agreed to joint therapy, promised to contribute financially toward my therapy and we began working to heal our relationship. But within a few months he recanted his admission and abandoned all efforts and aid with therapy, which led to my decision to sue him and his decision to disown me. My case was dismissed due to the statute of limitations but the process of taking legal action, and telling my story publically was empowering and helped shift my healing into high gear. Decades later, when he believed he was near death, my father would once again admit to his crimes. By then, years of intensive therapy, endless self-help and spiritual work, and the unconditional love and support of a good man with whom I created a new, healthier family of my own, had all combined to help me become whole again.
For a long time, even after I recovered my memories of his sexual abuse, and even after all the years of struggle to recover from my resulting PTSD, I felt a deep shame about my participation in my own objectification, harassment and abuse. Eventually, though, I came to see how skillfully my father had manipulated and groomed me as his victim, and gradually, I’ve forgiven myself.
The constant bombardment of triggering news stories is especially challenging for those of us who’ve endured and survived sexual violence. It can be hard to keep the stories in perspective and not read more into them than is really there. Of course, sometimes sexual harassment is just what it seems to be and nothing more: a person wielding their power over someone weaker in a sexually inappropriate way in order to maintain and grow that power. But every time I see another one of these stories in the news, I can’t help but wonder if the nastiness that’s being revealed isn’t actually just the tip of the iceberg. How many more stories are there about this alleged perpetrator that aren’t being told? And are the details of the offenses we’re hearing about really the worst of what occurred?
Three out of my father’s four marriages were to women who had children from previous unions. I was one of nine children, 14 or younger, that he was father or step-father to at some point. To my knowledge, I am the only one who speaks publically about his abuse. Does that mean he didn’t abuse any of the others, or is my story just one of several?
The fact that we live in a rape culture becomes more and more inescapable with every news cycle. I don’t claim to know how or even if we will ever heal as a society. What I do know for sure, is that just as with the process of healing from my own personal sexual abuse traumas, speaking out and sharing our stories is an essential prerequisite to any meaningful, positive change for us as a culture. Hopefully, the #metoo movement is just the tip of that iceberg.
Your article was timely, specific and heartbreaking at the same time. Well done!
Thank you, I appreciate you detailing your experience here. I think it should help people, because I believe you have written about this topic in a way that not many others have. And I’m glad you are healed!