A couple months ago, a friend from my book discussion group suggested that members choose the five books that have most influenced / impacted them – not one’s “favorite books” nor necessarily what one considers the “best books” read so far, but books which had some significant, lasting impact on the member’s thinking, ideas, or way of life – with an explanation of WHY it impacted the reader. Other members agreed it was a good idea that would lead to some very interesting discussion, though a couple people were hesitant to participate – and all felt limiting to five would be very difficult.
I have a decent list of titles in mind, may need to cut down to five, but there are two or three that must be included. The first of these is I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, edited by Ellen Bass and Louise Thornton. It was published in 1983, and I found it at Attleboro Public Library, probably in the fall of 1985, when I was 14 and a freshman in high school. The content and styles of the pieces vary widely, and some of them “stayed with me” more than others, but it was the lengthy introduction by Ellen Bass that really hit home for me.
I don’t know much at all about repressed memories, or about “false memories,” so I won’t address those topics beyond my own limited experience. What I do know is, while the knowledge of what happened to me was never repressed, buried, forgotten, there were details, and certain aspects of the incidents, that had slipped to the back of my mind. Reading the introduction to this book, I remembered that I had tried to say no – not at first, and not every time, but more often as time went on – and at least a couple times, I was able to resist.
Finding and reading this book when I was 14, when I was beginning to feel the enormity of what had happened to me – this was quite some time after the abuse had ended – brought home the realization that it was abuse, because I had tried to say no, and more often than not, saying no was not enough, and it happened anyway. I wasn’t to blame, I wasn’t just bad and dirty – I had tried to “be good,” to stop it from happening again, to protect myself. Like the girls in the book, the girls that Ellen Bass wrote about in that powerful essay, I wasn’t to blame, it wasn’t my fault.
The shame, the guilt, the self-blame – for me, it is all still there, several layers below my grown-up self. I try to “manage” it, to keep it down, and for the most part, I can. But once in a while, and often with little warning, I erupt, and it pours from me. I believe that people can change, that we aren’t necessarily “trapped” into being the same as we were last month, last year, five years ago, and we might be quite different next year, or five years from now. But part of what makes me “me” – and what makes you “you” – is the things that happened in my life (and in your life, in all our lives) last month, last year, five years ago, back as far as I (we) can remember. We can change, and we do change, but the deeper it lies, the harder it is to touch. I can change my clothes, change my hair, but can I change my heart? I don’t know.
I credit Ellen Bass, Louise Thornton, and all the brave women whose writing appears in the book I Never Told Anyone, for reminding me that I tried to resist, encouraging me to find my own voice, and helping me to feel I might be someone worthwhile after all.