When I was in American History class in high school, for some reason that I have long forgotten, I grabbed the dictionary from the shelf to look up a word. I couldn’t tell you what word I was looking for, nor can I recall if I ever found it. But I do remember the word that I discovered, tucked away in those musty pages about half way down on the left column of the right page. It jumped out at me as if alive, drawing my eyes to it with such force, it was as if it was intensely magnetic. It was one of those moments where something cataclysmic takes place. Something fated. The universe conspires to reveal a mighty truth that has been, until that moment, hidden. A lucky accident. A fortuitous mistake. The word I discovered? Incest. Until that moment, I didn’t know there was a word for what had happened to me. I believed I was the only one who had ever experienced the horror of being sexually abused and used by their father. I couldn’t imagine it happening to others; it was too ugly and shameful and dark. No, I thought the experience was mine and mine alone. My shame to bear. My secret to keep. My disgrace to hide. Seeing it defined in the dictionary stunned me. Shocked me. Astounded me. First, I was utterly flabbergasted to realize there was actually a word to succinctly summarize my nightmare. An official word. Defined by Daniel Webster, none the less. But beyond that, the existence of such a word told me that my experience was one that was known and was, therefore, likely shared with others. They don’t include words in the dictionary for events that only happen to me and me alone. So others had been used and broken and destroyed in the same manner as had I. More than just a handful of people, in fact, had probably shared the experience. That was what stunned and shocked me most deeply. I simply couldn’t grasp that it was widespread enough to have an official definition in the dictionary. On one hand, I was somewhat relieved that I wasn’t the only one. But on the other hand, I was mortified that there were others…probably many, many others. I was 14 or 15 years old when I read about incest and realized it was talking about what my father had done to me. The abuse had started when I was 4 or 5 and continued until I was hospitalized at age 14 with an ulcer and irritable bowel syndrome, likely due to the environment of my home. If the doctor hadn’t suspected something was very wrong, questioning me and pressing for answers I was too terrified to share after dismissing my father from his office, I am fairly certain he would not have stopped even then. But I think that was the moment when he realized he was losing control and his risk of exposure was very high. He didn’t want to get caught. He wanted to be able to continue to deceive himself into believing he was a great guy. A good father. Incest: in·cest [in-sest] noun 1. sexual intercourse between closely related persons. 2.the crime of sexual intercourse, cohabitation, or marriage between persons within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity wherein marriage is legally forbidden. Sexual relations (sexual contact or intercourse) between persons who, because of the nature of their kinship ties, are prohibited by law or custom from intermarrying. This usually takes the form of an older family member sexually abusing a child or adolescent. The incest taboo is generally universal, although it is imposed differently in different societies. Usually, the closer the genetic relationship between two people, the stronger and more highly charged is the taboo prohibiting or discouraging sexual relations. I know now that the incidents of such abuse are at epidemic levels in our society. I am at a loss to explain why. We live in a world where sex is free and easy. It has been for some time, although the sexual revolution was just getting wound up when I was a teen. But morals have been loosening for some time and it has never been easier to enjoy yourself with a consenting partner, regardless of what your pleasure might be. So why do fathers continue to rape their daughters? Why does the epidemic continue unchecked? And why don’t we focus more attention on this nasty disease and work harder to eradicate it? Obviously, it isn’t really about sex.
I was a teenager before I knew there was such a word. Even knowing, realizing I was not the only one, shame had placed an indelible mark on me. I dared not speak of the unspeakable things that I had endured. Those things, those awful, destructive, disgusting, dirty things made me unacceptable. I felt it in every cell of my body to the core of my being. As I do today, still, forty years later. How can you make your mouth speak words that are so ugly, you can’t even think them? How can you force your tongue to form the horrible sounds? How can you open to the light things that are not even bearable in the darkest of darkness? How can you face something that is so disgusting, it crushes you to allow even a fleeting memory to cross your mind?
How can you begin to stop something you won’t dare admit exists? And how can you heal from that which you don’t dare acknowledge?
Even those of us who have experienced it are loathe to speak out. It is too shameful. And speaking out requires admitting that we are worthless, dirty, tainted, broken, unacceptable. And so we stay silent. We deny. We numb. We quickly close the dictionary and walk away. Which is what I did that afternoon in high school. I closed the book, put it back on the shelf and tried to forget. Tried to forget there was a word for what had been done to me. And to thousands and thousands of others. Because it is a community to which none of us want to admit we belong. The community of the damaged and defiled. Incest survivors.
The silence continues.
But perhaps in opening that dictionary, I created the smallest of cracks in the prison of silence, through which is cast a thin, gray sliver of light that weakly, like a ghost light, quivers in the darkness. And maybe someone will hear what I whisper on these pages now and will finally have the strength and voice to rise up and say, “No more!”