Trigger warning! My story: how childhood trauma is passed down through the generations

a story about sibling sexual abuse and the perpetuation of multi-generational family dysfunction

What I remember comes in snippets. At first, I remembered only the events themselves, as if they were happening to someone else and I was watching it from somewhere outside my body, detached. Different scenes would play like a movie in my head but it was like someone had modified my memory and erased any emotion I had experienced during the abuse. I remembered what happened, but when I tried to understand how I felt about it, there was just a blank space, like that piece simply wasn’t recorded in my memory.

A few days ago (I’m almost 38 years old now) was the first time I accepted that my brother raped me when I was five years old and said it out loud to another person (my wife). I had to look up Oregon state law and read, reread and mull it over for almost a year before I accepted it as truth. What he did to me is defined as Class A felony rape in the first degree. I was raped by my brother.

My abuse lasted over twelve years and was very complex, so below I’ve organized the story in chronological order by how old I was when each thing happened.

Before I was born

Beginning when he was 5 years old my Dad was raped by his father. My dad is one of six kids, so he didn’t get a lot of quality time with his father. When Grandpa invited him to go get ice cream one-on-one, it made my dad feel special. My Grandpa took advantage of my dad’s need for closeness and raped him, then bought him ice cream and told him that if he told anyone about it he would kill him. Dad was also abused by his oldest brother, who was probably also abused by their father.

My Dad has never recovered from this terrible childhood trauma. It is no surprise that he has struggled a lot with demons throughout his life. He has always been extremely angry and distrustful. When I was a kid he told me: “You can never trust anyone but your family.” I’ve always found this to be very strange and terrible advice, given we were both hurt the most by members of our family.

My parents married at 19 and had my brother when they were in their early twenties. When my brother was born three months premature, my Dad was deep in a depression brought on by his own trauma. In standard preemie care of the era, my brother was in an incubator at the hospital for a month before my parents were allowed to touch him. When he came home, he was inconsolable—screaming constantly. As he got older, he was always getting into trouble.

Meanwhile, my Dad would get up early every weekday and go to work, then come home and just lay in bed. He was in so much pain he barely said a word to anyone for three years, while my Mom did her best to keep going. She experienced a miscarriage during those years, then got pregnant with me, only to experience postpartum depression after I was born. Mom was in a really bad way, but she worked hard to be there for her kids in the best way she could, despite the fact that she had experienced a lot of childhood trauma herself (more on that later).

As all trauma survivors do, my Dad has found any number of coping strategies to survive throughout his life—drugs, alcohol, gambling, TV, gardening, mowing the lawn, etc. Growing up, I saw him use “willpower” (aka “I don’t need help”) to stop each addiction cold-turkey, only to replace it with a new addiction very soon afterwards. Due to a terrible first experience trying therapy with his family, he has since convinced himself to not believe in therapy. I think he thinks he’s incapable of processing what happened to him so he numbs himself in whatever way he can to get through each painful day. Unfortunately, I understand that compulsion completely.

I believe he is capable of healing from his trauma, but it is a terrifying thing to accept this kind of reality. To end denial, you have to mourn the loss of the entire world as you knew it and this is not something that’s easy to do and carry on with your life. Things tend to come to a grinding halt and it hurts a lot more for a while before it starts to get better. I get it, but I’m still incredibly angry with him.

My Dad is a very loving person, sometimes super sweet and weepy about romantic or sentimental things. At the same time, his go-to coping strategy has always been anger. He was on edge and angry constantly when I was a child. His anger turned into verbal and emotional abuse. Any sudden change, no matter how small would send him into a total freak-out and he would berate my mom or my brother for their failings (real or imagined).

Dad was verbally and emotionally abusive throughout our childhoods, though he mostly avoided yelling directly at me. I made sure I was always perfect so he would have no reason to yell. As an adult, I still feel terror whenever I fail or think I might fail at something. The mean voice inside my head whenever I make a mistake (even little things, like spilling water or otherwise being clumsy[1]) is my Dad’s.

Dad was terrified to be a father to a boy. He had no idea how to do it right, so he would check out, then suddenly blow up at my brother if he made a mistake. He yelled louder and got meaner the more closely my brother’s behavior resembled mistakes or regrets in Dad’s own life. He projected his failures onto this small boy.

When I came around, my brother was already entrenched in his role as the bad kid. I was relatively quiet, so I became the angel. I don’t remember anything from this time, but my Mom told me that when I was a baby she remembers my brother coming up to me when I was lying on an ottoman, poking me to mess with me. He was three and he did not like that I was around.

1 year old

When I was barely one and my brother was three, we lived in a house in outer SE Portland on a dead-end street. I remember that one of our babysitters (a neighbor) ended up with child molestation charges many years later. I don’t remember anything happening to me then, but it’s very possible something happened to my older brother.

I do know that when my brother was three he was caught in the bushes with another neighbor boy of about the same age. My brother had his pants down and the other boy was giving him oral sex. I was so young I don’t remember seeing what happened in the bushes, but I do remember that there was a lot of anger and shame thrown at him because of what had happened. The stink of it permeated our home.

3-4 years old

When I was three, my brother was 6. I remember us playing in the dirt at the front of the house and I was wearing this little necklace with stars on it that I loved and no shirt, because it was summer and I was THREE. This is the last memory I have where I felt totally free and easy in my body.

Then, my brother made fun of me, saying girls weren’t allowed to go around shirtless. He sexualized the situation and made me feel bad about my body by saying “it’s not like there’s anything to see, but you still can’t be shirtless like boys.” I remember feeling ashamed and confused because I had no idea why I couldn’t be shirtless or why I was different.

When I was in pre-school, my brother and I went to Montessori School. For some reason, my brother would throw tantrums in the mornings and refuse to get dressed for school. This happened several times and the school staff finally suggested that my Mom give him consequences that fit the crime. They said that if he wouldn’t get dressed, then she should send him to school in whatever he was wearing at the time. In her twenties, without much support from my Dad and completely beside herself not knowing what to do, my Mom listened to them and sent him to school in his underwear. She has regretted it ever since. As you can imagine, he was taunted all day while vulnerable in his underwear.

I also remember going to the bathroom in a line of girls and they could all see me sit on the toilet sideways because I was too small to sit forward without falling in. One of the girls told me I was doing it wrong and they all laughed at me while my pants were down. I was humiliated.

5-7 years old

My brother and I shared a bedroom in the basement apartment of my maternal grandparents house from when I was 5 until I entered first grade at 7. My first memory of being touched by my brother sexually happened around the time I was five. I was lying on the couch in the basement. My brother was eight.

I don’t remember much about how he coerced me to do this, but I have the movie in my head on constant repeat. I was lying on the couch with my brother on top of me (we were both naked) and he was trying to get his limp penis to go inside my vagina. After trying to get it in by himself, he asked me to help, so I did because I had no idea what was happening or how bad it was. I loved and trusted him completely. I didn’t want to hurt my big brother’s feelings and he made it seem normal. He was the oldest and I assumed he knew more than me about the world and I trusted him to teach me. The adults in my life told me to listen to what he said when they weren’t around. They weren’t around a lot.

Eventually, he got his penis into my vagina. Then, he just laid on top of me for what felt like hours. My grandparents were babysitting while my young parents were out having fun. At some point during the time my brother was still inside me, my grandpa came to the door at the top of the stairs and yelled down “you kids ok?” My brother yelled back “YES!” in a way that sounded like he was up to something he shouldn’t be doing.

My grandparents never bothered to come down the stairs and see for themselves, so they just closed the door and walked away.

Until I was 36 years old and started EMDR therapy, I had no idea how I actually felt during the abuse. Once I started to reprocess these memories, I remembered more and more detail from each memory. Over time, I finally remembered the emotions I was feeling during the abuse.

At first, I realized that I knew exactly what the arm of the couch looked like (70s-style green and orange velour flowers) because my head was turned to the side and I stared at that couch, frozen for a long time. Now, when I see my grandpa come to the door, I remember how I felt and how I didn’t say the words I desperately wanted to come true: please come down the stairs and do something! I remember that I could see my Grandpa’s pants from the waist down while he stood in the door, but he could not see me or hear my thoughts.

I honestly don’t remember if there was much movement involved. It was almost as if my brother overheard someone say “you put the penis in the vagina” when describing sex. I guess he decided he wanted to try it. I don’t know if he ejaculated (I may have repressed it if he did), but I do remember after he pulled out there was a lot of blood and I was terrified. I knew something precious was gone, but I had no idea what it was.

Many years later, after my first sex education class I learned what a hymen was and realized I’d lost mine when I was five, which basically felt like I’d never had it. I felt like a freak that no one could ever love because my brother stole my virginity before I knew it was precious. That day after school I came home to an empty house and screamed “I hate you!” and threw my shoes at the wall between our bedrooms while I crumpled to the floor and cried.

I’ve always felt like the rape on the couch probably wasn’t the first thing my brother did to me. It just seemed so advanced for a first foray into sexually abusing your little sister. I don’t believe he could have convinced me to do that without some preparation. However, if anything did happen before then, the memories are still repressed. I do know that I am often overcome by terror when thinking about going to bed at night, even though I know consciously that I am safe now and grown up. I suspect he may have done things to me while I was sleeping in our room, but I don’t know for sure. Either way, my subconscious mind is stuck in a continual loop of fear.

I also remember that the two of us would hang out in my grandparents hot tub together while my mom was at work. Grandma or Grandpa would sit inside the house with their back to the sliding glass door. While they watched TV, my brother showed me how to find the “feel good spot” by pushing his genitals up against the water jets. I tried it and had my first orgasm, but I called it “the feel good spot” because I didn’t know what an orgasm was. That summer we spent a lot of time in the hot tub with our backs turned to each other, rubbing up against the jets while no adult seemed to notice at all.

I now know that when my brother taught me to masturbate, he was grooming me and it was part of the abuse. “Grooming is the process by which an offender draws a victim into a sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy.”

When all of this happened, I already felt responsible for my brother and parents’ well-being. There wasn’t room for one more problem in this family. I was sure that if I told anyone what was happening my family would explode and everyone could die. I assumed my brother would go to jail, if my Dad didn’t kill him first. So I created a small black box inside of my gut and hid all the bad things there. I would picture myself putting things in there and locking it.

My mom was already leaning on me for emotional support since my Dad was basically MIA. Over the years, she shared her relationship problems and asked for advice. I heard him yelling at her, making her feel small. She asked me for help disciplining my brother. The close relationship I had with my mom made me feel special, like we shared a bond nobody else could have.

Mom eventually started asking me to be the one to deliver any news of change to my Dad because I was good at diffusing his anger. I became her buffer. It felt like being on the bomb squad, like each time I was going into a life or death situation and I might fail because I was ill-equipped for this role. It was terrifying, but I felt like I was her protector. I had to save her. Even though my brother was abusing me, I also felt it was my job to save him, too.

This is a classic dynamic in dysfunctional families. One child becomes the scapegoat, while another is parentified (this is also called emotional or covert incest, which doesn’t have to be sexualized—it is more about a child assuming the emotional role of an absent spouse). This burden was too heavy for me to carry and I believe that I would have told someone (and stopped the abuse) sooner if I hadn’t felt so responsible for my family’s wellbeing.

About this time, I started to use food to comfort, punish and parent myself. I would sneak upstairs in the middle of the night and crawl up on the counter to pull down my Grandma’s hidden stash of pinwheel cookies and eat them in secret.

7 years old

When I was seven, we moved three houses down at the farm into the house my maternal great-grandparents built in 1927. It was a huge, 3-storey, grey-brick and red mortar Craftsman-style house. There were five bedrooms in this house and my brother and I had rooms next to each other on the third floor, while my parents took the master on the second/main floor.

While in this house, my brother would periodically lead me to his room, lay me down on his bed, pull down my pants and give me oral sex. I remember how detached I felt. I would lay there and look to the side, staring. I could barely feel what he was doing. It felt simultaneously kind of nice and horrible, but it didn’t seem like not doing it was an option. I now believe that I dissociated from my body while this happened.

I don’t know the exact number of times he did this. I know it was at least three, but it feels more true to say that it was many, many times over a period of several years and they all just blur together in my mind because I was so detached as it happened. I think it happened any time there were no adults in the house, which was very frequently during the summer days when both of our parents were at work. I think since our house was on the same property as the business where my mom worked, they thought we didn’t need a babysitter.

It was also about this time that my parents found all our rabbits dead in the cage outside. I think my brother killed about 10 rabbits in one sitting with his bare hands.

While my brother worked out his rage by killing small animals and controlling me, I found the blessed combination of Premium saltine crackers and Tillamook cheddar cheese. I spent many late nights sneaking these crackers and taking them up to my room to make perfect, tiny cracker sandwiches that I would shove in my mouth over and over. I would eat whole sleeves of crackers at a time. Eventually I would eat several sleeves in a sitting. Something about the ritual was comforting to me—it felt like I was caring for myself somehow. I spent a lot of time in my room or up in trees reading books or writing to distract myself.

About this time my mom asked me directly one afternoon in the car if anything was wrong. She knew something was not right. I had too many issues—my stomach was always hurting and I was really cagey about everything all the time. I denied it, but secretly hoped she would ask me again and again and not stop asking until I told her. I needed and wanted to tell her. I was so alone and scared, but also paralyzed by the unknown—there was no way for me to predict what would happen if I told. All I could see was the worst: everyone I loved could get in trouble and maybe our family would be split up. Contemplating the explosion of your family is very hard to handle when you’re a small child—we are programmed to want stability.

I also had no words to describe what had happened to me. I scoured TV programs like Oprah and Jerry Springer to try and find any shred of evidence that I was not alone in my experiences. I saw some stories about abuse, but they were always characterized as adult on child and/or violent. Until the Josh Duggar scandal hit social media by storm in 2015, I had never heard of kids being coerced into sexual abuse by other kids. The rape or incest stories being told all seemed to be examples of violence used to subdue the victim. As a small child I loved and trusted my big brother absolutely. He had no need to hold me down or otherwise physically force me: he used his words. He could talk me into anything.

A few years ago I asked my mom why she didn’t try harder to get the truth out of me at the time. She took responsibility for her actions and said “honestly, we were young and stupid and selfish. I think I didn’t really want to know.” I also asked her why they let us sleep over at my Dad’s parents house when they knew what had been done to my Dad. She told me she felt her own family was broken and it meant so much to her to be a part of my Dad’s big, boisterous family. In a group they were usually a lot of fun–they would drink a lot and laugh. She wanted to believe that my Grandma would keep us safe. I don’t think grandpa ever touched me, but he was creepy and he could have done something to my brother or one of my cousins.

9 years old

Around the age of 9, my 12-year old brother made me stand on the ground and keep watch to make sure no adults were coming while he had sex on top of the tree house above me with our 12-year-old neighbor (a girl). They were almost in view of the front door of the building where my Mom worked. I remember feeling icky about it, but also like I was caught in a tractor beam and couldn’t move. In many different ways, my brother had convinced me that if I told anyone what he was doing (to me or the other girl), everyone would think I was perverted, too. He made me feel complicit in what he was doing to me.

About the same time, I was walking through the same grove of trees where the tree house stood and stumbled upon an older neighbor boy sitting under a tree with his penis out in his hand. He said “bet you’ve never seen one this big!” For a second I was frozen, but then I ran home.

When I started to go through puberty early, I built on what my brother taught me in the hot tub and tried the pull-down showerhead in the main floor bathroom to find “the feel good spot.” This room was the only inside door that locked reliably in the house, so I would spend hours in there running out all the hot water. Sometimes my brother would jiggle the doorknob and try to open it while I was in there just to mess with my head. He would say “what are you doing in there?” My heart would jump into my throat, but the lock was very strong. I learned to trust this room to be my only safe place.

I was 9 when I got my first period. I knew what it meant—I could get pregnant. What I didn’t know is exactly how you got pregnant and if what my brother was doing to me could result in that particular affliction.

I often played with another neighbor girl at her family’s farm across the street. One day we were playing near the road and she dared me to moon the cars as they drove by. I was convinced that if I pulled down my pants the whole world would know how disgusting I was. I refused, but she was persistent.

Finally, I broke down and told her the reason I didn’t want to pull my pants down: my brother touched me and that he had made me go along with it. She immediately wanted us to go tell my mom. I wished I could tell someone and make it stop, but was more afraid at the time of what could happen to my family if I did. I begged and pleaded until she promised not to tell. I regretted that for many years.

10 years old

The summer of my 10th year, I went camping with my maternal grandparents alone. I’m not sure why the rest of my family wasn’t there—maybe my brother was at camp and my parents wanted some time to themselves.

In the small RV, it was impossible to hide. We were parked in Eastern Oregon at my grandpa’s friend’s house. Sometimes I passed the time there by lying on the floor inside the house watching TV with the younger boy. This boy had terrible boundaries. At some point, he jumped on my back and stretched his body out on top of me as I was lying there. It was really weird and made me feel so gross.

This experience devastated me, but I was already convinced that I had no way out and assumed there was no recourse for me in this kind of situation. No one else seemed to notice it, so I thought: maybe there is something wrong with me. The alternative that terrible things kept happening to me and the people who were supposed to keep me safe weren’t doing that at all was just too terrible for a small child to believe.

I coped by freezing and dissociating from my body, as well as eating 3 whole bags of fun-size candy bars in secret. At some point my grandpa (my Mom’s stepdad) found me with the candy and said “fatty fatty two-by-four, can’t get through the kitchen door.”

This grandpa also regularly said lecherous things to my Mom when she was young and started to do the same to me when I began developing into a young woman. In addition to comfort, eating became a way to help me hide from men like my step-grandpa and paternal grandpa: the larger I was, the less vulnerable I felt.

11 – 16 years old

I started middle school in the 6th grade, where I was one of the few girls who already had breasts. Almost daily, boys my age and older would reach out and grab my boobs or my butt on purpose as they brushed up against me in the crowded hallways. No teachers ever seemed to notice or care. I was already under the impression that my body was not my own, so it didn’t occur to me to ask for help. I guess I assumed that school was like home and there was no way out.

By the time I was about 11, I had learned enough to know that what my brother was doing to me was not normal or ok. Brothers weren’t supposed to touch their sisters like that. I stood up to him and told him I wouldn’t let him touch me anymore. This is when he started to work overtime to try and convince me to continue to let him do things to me. He said that our cousins (a brother and sister) did it too, so it must be ok. He could not convince me it was ok anymore.

He tested this boundary very soon afterwards by sitting on my back while I was on the floor watching TV to hold me down. He reached his hand between my legs and touched my crotch through my jeans. I was so angry I screamed at him to get off me and chased him up the stairs. He slammed the door in my face and I punched it. My adrenaline-fueled 11-year old punch broke that solid wood door.

He never touched me in an overtly sexual way again, but in some ways what he did next was more disturbing. He was 14, a freshman in high school. A young man. He became increasingly more frightening to me as his behavior got more invasive and bizarre.

He started to menace and stalk me all the time, but not in any kind of pattern I could learn to avoid. He followed me around and tried to “wrestle” with me, usually in front of other people. It looked like “normal” sibling squabbles if you didn’t know what else he had done. I couldn’t react in a way that would give him away, but felt extremely exposed and embarrassed every time. He did anything he could to find ways to keep establishing his power over me, like sitting on my chest with his knees pinning my arms and letting his spit drip until it almost hit my face, then sucking it back up at the last minute, or tapping my sternum over and over until it hurt, saying “Chinese water torture!”

He would also tip-toe to the third-floor bathroom door outside our bedrooms while I was peeing, then burst through the door and point at my crotch while he said “probe!” like a maniac. I guess he was threatening to put his finger in my crotch against my will like an alien probe in an abduction movie. It was so weird and terrifying.

For a time he spied on me through the old skeleton keyhole in my bedroom door while I changed my clothes and invited his friends to do the same. Sometimes my brother would burst into my room to try and catch me undressed. After I figured out he was doing that, I always hung a t-shirt or towel from the doorknob so the keyhole would be covered.

As an extra precaution (because I couldn’t lock my bedroom door), I would sometimes put a chair under the knob and change in the corner of the room or in my closet where he wouldn’t immediately see me if he opened the door or the keyhole-cover failed. I started to just generally hide in the closet a lot. I also learned that the best way to defend myself from his longer, stronger arms was to immediately lie down on my back and start kicking furiously. If I could avoid him getting his arms wrapped around me, I would usually be able to escape.

Now, when I experience flashbacks or am otherwise triggered, I often feel a compulsion to hide somewhere no one can see me, preferably a small, dark room, closet or bathroom with a lock.

[1] International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, FAQ’s for Teachers: a Child who is triggered may bump into furniture, trip frequently, and appear generally clumsy because he is unaware of his body and his surroundings, http://www.isst-d.org/default.asp?contentID=101#3., accessed 9.13.16

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