In my house growing up there were six bedrooms: three downstairs, three up. Mine was sandwiched in between the two upstairs and decorated to my liking, just for a little girl. The sunny yellow walls complemented the matching bedspread with intricate threading woven through the soft cloth, little squares of yellow outlined in white. Mom’s bedroom, next to mine, faced the front yard and, after Dad died, Stevie slept there too in a separate twin bed by the window.
No one else besides Chet and me were home and the usually active, loud, busy household seemed oddly quiet. Mom had found work as a secretary and we were left on our own much of the time. Chet, fifteen, and the designated watcher of Stevie and me, was known for his happy-go-lucky good nature and charm. I loved and adored him, as I loved all my brothers, though a crack had begun to form deep below. Quite the lady’s man, he dated frequently and the girls couldn’t get enough of him. I couldn’t either. He made me laugh and feel good and always had a smile. You could not help grinning or feeling happy around him.
I sat cross-legged on my bed with an array of punch-out Barbie doll clothes I had received for my tenth birthday, the kind where you dress a paper doll Barbie with paper clothes that have little tabs to fold over the doll to hold them in place. I hummed while playing, the bright sunshine splashing onto the sunny yellow bedspread. Stevie had taken off with his bike down the road to play with his cousin. Warm summer air fluttered the frilly white curtains.
Chet came upstairs, looking into my room, dangling a pack of Wrigley’s gum in his hand, not the stick kind but the box with little pillows of gum crusted with sugar glaze.
His eyes were smiling, playing a game. He said excitedly, “You get it before I do and you can have it. I’ll give you a head start!”
I jumped off the bed into the hallway. He threw it towards Mom’s room where it landed on the floor by her bed.
“Go!” he said.
Loving games with prizes, especially those involving gum or candy, I raced after it, reaching it before he did, claiming the prize. I’d won! I held it up staring at the cellophane, straining to see at least one square of the sugary gum, but it was empty. I looked at it bewildered, but had little time to complain. His body slammed into mine, the rock solid force knocking the air out of me. He dragged me onto Mom’s bed, falling on top quickly, as if all in one motion, smothering me with his weight, his chest crushing air from my lungs, his shoulders, head, and face so close the minute heated air space between his head and my face lacked oxygen. My body roared in defense, bucking, twisting, and trying to pull away or get up but I couldn’t move. Fighting made it harder to breath and so much worse, like I might die if I kept it up. So I lay still. His fifteen years of male growth, massive and violent, overpowered my child-sized frame with deadening, brutal, iron heaviness. No breath came until I quit fighting. The brick wall stifling me had just one moment ago been my smiling brother.
During the unfair battle for my life and breath, my shorts and panties were roughly pulled down. He rubbed himself against me, also naked. Up, down, up, down. The two skins together felt horridly wrong, cold, and creepy. I felt sick and dizzy. He pressed faster and harder against me. He seemed to have finished whatever he started, cupping his hand down there as if to catch something, then left the room leaving me on my mother’s bed in a stupor. I could breathe again, I had air, but my world felt dark and cramped as if I were in a box. I stared off in the distance, going to a safe place inside, the outer me a shell.
And so it began. I became his toy.
More than all the attacks and abuse, it was the empty gum box and that moment in time that crystallized in my conscious and unconscious memory. I had been tricked. I had been tricked by someone I loved and trusted, a brother who, in normal circumstances, would protect a young sister. But instead, unconsciously, instinctually, as a matter of survival, that memory caused the total eradication of trust for any other human being ever. His treachery became a steady, deliberate series of planned attacks for the next few years, symbolized by an empty packet of gum.
It became a very dark period. I continued to be used this way along with any friend unfortunate enough to play with me at the house or spend the night. I lived many years into adulthood with the guilt of what he did to my friends and cousin down the road.
Annie, my cousin and neighbor, used to play at my house as much as I at hers. He attacked her too but she told. Her parents talked to Mom. Annie could no longer come to our house. That made me feel bad, that our family was bad, but most especially me.
Now Mom knew about another brother. I sat in my bedroom opposite her, my face red and hot. The tears stung in their intensity, dripping burning shame into my lap.
“Tell me if anything ever happens again,” she admonished, as if I had the power to stop it.
That was the extent of any protection I’d get. My head slowly nodded yes as tears washed down, but I knew I’d never tell. I felt to blame, guilty and shamed, evidently experiencing much more remorse than the abuser who kept abusing me.
I began itching fiercely between my legs where I peed. And it didn’t go away. Instead the itching intensified. I felt afraid, more afraid of the itching than of him.
“I’m itching,” I said to Chet, after he was done with me.
He smiled as he left. “Oh you probably have a rash,” he said nonchalantly, then was gone from my room.
I became more afraid, panicky. Something was down there and I had to find out. I looked for Mom’s makeup mirror on her dressing room table, the special place where I loved to play dress-up, putting her sparkling blue diamond-like studded necklace atop my head like a tiara. When Dad was still alive and they went out in the evening, I often sat at her little table on the small stool, looking into the three mirrors set at angles to see all sides, adorning myself with her jewelry, pretending to be a princess. But I wasn’t a child anymore, suddenly I had become very old, the weight of reality changing me from ten to two hundred, as I robotically performed functions only an adult should know how to do—or have to do.
I lay on her bed, pulled my panties down, held the mirror over the area and saw bugs. I went downstairs for a cup, filling it with hot water. After finding tweezers from her dresser that she used to pluck her eyebrows, I laid again on her bed, held the mirror in one hand, and with the other plucked the minute spiders from me. Their little teeth stubbornly burrowed tightly into the soft, sweet flesh, but I pulled every one that I could and placed it in the cup of hot water, hoping to scald it to death.
This time I went to Mom.
She seemed quiet, then said, “We’ll see the doctor.”
“No!” I pleaded through tears of shame and fright.
The dread of our doctor knowing far overshadowed the revulsion and terror of what was down there, still stuck on me. So later she came to me with a small container of powder.
“I looked it up. This is DDT. It will kill them. Dust yourself down there in the morning before getting dressed and at night before you put on pajamas. I’ll wash all your sheets, nightgowns, and underwear,” she said, all business. Then she added, “Chet already saw a doctor and took care of it.”
I felt limp and emptied… he didn’t tell me.
This latest rush of shame watered my face, lips and chin, my face again hot. Knowing I added to her burdens of “all us eight kids,” which had become the mantra after Dad died, tormented me. But she wouldn’t expose me and, at that moment, Mom became both a life- long alliance and a place to dump rage.
Did we not go to the doctor because I begged her not to? Or could her fear of exposure have been greater than mine? And she was right, the DDT did kill them.
The abuse stopped, though not on my volition. I never had such power but believed I should have. Feeling real stopped too, as if I’d become invisible, a ghost of a person undeserving of the same rights, voice, or worth as others. Mom hired a high school girl that summer to watch Stevie and me so Chet couldn’t get at me again. I never told her about the others.