Image Credit: Phil Mansfield
Sometimes, lost in thought, I find my hand pressed against my lips, as if to silence them. It’s a new habit. Questions swirl around me: Why dredge up the past? Aren’t you okay now? What about his family? A rash appears at the corner of my mouth. The dermatologist has a name for it: angular cheilitis. He says it could be triggered by stress. Or maybe it’s the imprint of my muting fingers. What am I trying to say that’s so awful?
When Professor Cadbury was ten years old, an “uncle” came up behind her and put his hands on her chest. They’d been running errands, perhaps grocery shopping, in preparation for a big holiday meal. She’d gotten out of the car and entered a door at the side of the house, next to the driveway, where one flight of stairs led down into the basement and another, shorter flight up to the kitchen.
It was there on the stairs that her uncle put his hands on her. He pressed hard, searching out her developing breasts. “Let’s see how far along you are,” he laughed. She felt his hot breath on the back of her neck.
Everything stopped for her. She was paralyzed with dread, crushed with shame. But she made no outward sign. It was as if a wall of glass had slid soundlessly over her face, cutting her off from the rest of the world.
At some point her uncle let her go, and she climbed the remaining stairs into the kitchen. She didn’t tell anyone, didn’t ask for help. What could she say? She didn’t really know what had happened, except that it felt wrong.
Her uncle’s assaults continued for years at family gatherings. Sitting at the dinner table she’d watch his fat greasy hands spoon salad onto each plate; she’d wonder how she could escape their probing when he inevitably caught her alone. As she grew older, the episodes grew more intense. He would squeeze her breasts and buttocks. His mutterings became more explicit: “Has all that horseback riding popped your cherry yet?” She tried to avoid him, but it was his house and he always found her.
At age seventeen she moved across the country to work for a year before starting college. Was she running from her uncle? She was certainly more successful in avoiding him. But not entirely.
The last time my uncle assaulted me, I was twenty-six years old. We were in town for a family wedding, visiting my uncle’s house. Years had passed. I’d been out of his reach first in Chicago, then in England. I guess I thought it would be over.
I was in the kitchen, maybe getting a glass of water. I wasn’t thinking about the danger. Then suddenly he was there, grinding against me, his sweaty bloated fingers clutching at my body, his face pressed against my neck. “How’s your boyfriend?” he said and laughed. “Does he eat you?” I was ten years old again, frozen with horror. I stared straight ahead, helpless, ashamed. My stricken gaze focused on a frying pan hanging on the wall.
I left the house with my parents and got into the car. My father was driving, my mother sitting next to him. I was alone in the back seat. For the first time I told them the whole history. It seemed to erupt from deep inside. “Turn the car around,” cried my mother. “Turn the car around.” But my father kept driving.
For years afterwards I imagined a different scenario. My father turns the car around, drags my uncle out onto the street and kicks his ass. Or, when my uncle grabs me, I break free, yelling bloody murder. I take the frying pan and swing it into his face. Crunch. Like the forensic scientists on Bones smashing a melon with various blunt instruments to predict the effect on a human skull. Smush. Or maybe I just bring the house down with my screams. I call the police and watch him being taken away in cuffs.
What if I’d told my parents the first time it happened? My uncle follows me up the stairs, puts his hands on my breasts, and starts his mumbling. What are you doing! I shout, and I run up into the kitchen where my mother and aunt have just walked in. My uncle is arrested and I never see him again.
Would this have worked? Would I still have been traumatized? Perhaps not. But maybe everyone would have been mad at me for shaming the family rather than at him for preying on it. Best case scenario—he never touches me at all.
This past summer I watched a friend’s ten-year-old daughter playing in the surf on a Connecticut beach, splashing, laughing, singing, hair glinting in the sunlight. Her mother stood next to me. We had just been talking about my uncle, and I felt her love and fear for her young daughter coming off her in waves. How could any man, particularly one with girls of his own, hurt an innocent child? Pig, she said, fucking pig.
I wasn’t my uncle’s only victim. As we grew up, my cousins and I began to talk. One girl was nineteen when he began pestering her with questions about her sex life. “What do you do for orgasms when your boyfriend’s out of town?” he asked. Another cousin was twelve when he sat next to her on the couch, sidled up against her, whispered suggestively. Her eight-year-old brother was also in the room. He said nothing then, but at a family gathering decades later he told my uncle, “You can’t be here.” A third girl was only five when my uncle set her on his lap. They were in the living room, surrounded by family members, including the girl’s parents. She had a blanket over her, and underneath the blanket he put his hand between her legs.
When I was thirty-eight, I attended a weekend gathering of family members, over a hundred of us. My uncle approached one of my second cousins, a girl who’d been abused by another man, too, and exclaimed, “Oh how awful,” as if he himself had never touched her. When she told me what he’d said, I was consumed by anger, and I no longer felt helpless.
My cousin and I said we wanted to talk to him. We made an appointment for the next morning. What I wouldn’t or couldn’t do for myself, I did for her. We confronted him, told him exactly what he’d done to us, and he admitted everything. He didn’t apologize, though. Instead he begged, “Don’t tell my wife. I’m seventy years old. I couldn’t sleep last night.”
“You couldn’t sleep?” I cried. “How do you think we’ve been sleeping for the last thirty years?”
I felt a new focus, an attentiveness to the moment, a responsibility. My body was filled with a cold light. My voice was glacial. “I’m watching you,” I said. “You have granddaughters. If I ever think you’re hurting them, I’ll call the police. In fact, I’ve already spoken to the national hotline for child sexual abuse. I know the law. I know who to call.” It was not an empty threat. He cowered in his chair.
Some years later I began to dream about a vulnerable little girl. She looked much like me at ten, with long straight hair and a bleak expression on her face. She wore a sleeveless white dress and stood alone in a dark room, knowing something terrible was going to happen. The dreams continued, and at last I realized that they were not about me but about my uncle’s ten-year-old granddaughter. I called the girl’s mother and told her what had happened to me and to our cousins. There was silence. Then she said, “Without knowing why, I’ve never let my father be alone with my daughter.”
When Professor Cadbury was ten years old, her uncle came up behind her on the stairs and put his hands on her nipples, snickering into the back of her neck. As she grew older, he would squeeze her breasts and buttocks. He poisoned her ears with his sex talk. These assaults continued for years.
Much later, now the mother of two young boys, Professor Cadbury began to have recurring dreams about a ten-year-old girl—herself, she thought—who seemed to be in danger. What were the dreams trying to tell her? As it happened, her uncle had a granddaughter who was nearly ten. The dreams were telling her this girl needed help.
Professor Cadbury spoke to her priest about it. She felt she should tell this girl’s mother what had happened in her own childhood. The priest agreed. They role-played how she would do it. She took notes, prepared a kind of script. One night when her own children were asleep, she made the call. After that, the dreams stopped.
There was talk in the family that this girl’s grandmother, the uncle’s wife, was a particularly bright and charming child, glowing and happy. But when she turned ten, the light went out. There was a shadow over her. She’d had an uncle, too.
Ten years later Professor Cadbury saw the girl she had dreamed of at a family wedding, glowing and happy. There was no shadow over her.
That seemed like a turning point, telling the girl’s mother. If my story could help other children, maybe I could find peace. But like too many others, I’m scarred, and scars can still hurt, still bind, even though they no longer bleed.
Two years ago, when I read Ronan Farrow’s article about Harvey Weinstein in The New Yorker, I felt an excruciating pressure on those scars. The details of the assaults are horrific. The extent of Weinstein’s predation and the complicity of those who protected him are monstrous. Hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought about his victims. “A big fat man wanting to eat you,” said one of the women interviewed. “It’s a scary fairy tale.”
Fairy tales often feature predators that threaten children and young women. Before they get to the happily ever after, the innocent protagonists endure abuse and abandonment, and often come close to death; they encounter wolves and witches, ogres and dragons, as well as lustful men and envious women. Sleeping Beauty, for example, cursed by a vengeful old fairy, pricks her finger and spends a hundred years in an enchanted sleep before she is awakened by a prince’s kiss. Snow White is poisoned by her jealous stepmother and placed in a glass coffin. On a visit to her grandmother’s house, Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by a wolf and spends some time in his stomach before she is released by a passing huntsman.
Earlier versions of these stories are even more disturbing. Giambattista Basile’s seventeenth-century sleeping beauty, Talia, falls into a dangerous coma after sticking her finger with a splinter of flax. Her father then abandons her in an empty house in the countryside, where she is raped in her sleep by a king, who happens to be hunting nearby, and bears two children. When she is awakened—not by the king/rapist, but by one of the babies sucking the splinter from her finger—she falls in love with the perpetrator. Inconveniently, he’s already married, but he disposes of his wife, and again the couple lives happily ever after, as if the violation of the woman’s unconscious body had left no scars.
In Charles Perrault’s telling of Little Red Riding Hood, also from the seventeenth century, the story ends with the girl being devoured. No huntsman comes along to open up the wolf’s belly and release her. Perrault even links the wolf to human predators and advises girls not to talk to strangers. Here is that notion that fairy tales could teach us something, could prepare us for real-life situations. But, of course, Perrault’s advice would be useless in the overwhelming majority of cases where the perpetrator is known to the victim.
What happens then when we’ve lived a scary fairy tale? How does repeated abuse prepare a child for the challenges of adulthood, the force and complexity of sex, the threat of other predators?
I know that I was prepared to “say uncle”: to freeze, to submit, to stay silent.
While working on a master’s degree in English literature, Professor Cadbury had a desk in an office popularly called the “fishbowl,” thanks to the double glass doors which left its occupants perpetually on display, like pet goldfish. She shared this office with five other graduate students, including Jed. On New Year’s Eve, Jed escorted her home after a party, like a gentleman, she thought, like a big brother. But when they got to her apartment, his mood changed. He wanted to have sex with her.
“No,” she said.
“You know you want it,” he insisted. “You’ve been expecting it.”
“No!” she protested. “Absolutely not!”
Jed was a large man, probably a little drunk, and very determined. He gripped her arms tightly, still repeating she wanted it. Her spirit sank. She looked at the door of the apartment, wondered if she could get to it before he caught her again, decided she couldn’t.
Jed pushed her back on the bed. As he unzipped his jeans, she looked past his shoulder at the pictures on the wall behind him, at the archway between the bedroom and the hall. She said nothing, made no sound at all, when he jammed his penis into her. He left as soon as he was done, and she can’t remember that he ever spoke to her again, even though they continued to share the “fishbowl” with the other grad students. She didn’t tell anyone what had happened until many years later.
I remember lying on the bed, its footboard pressing into my spine. There were no kisses (thank God), no preparations of any kind. No lubricant. He just rammed his dick right in there. Standing bolt upright, thrusting away. Grunting with the force of it.
How did I get through it, I wonder, impaled on the mattress like Basile’s sleeping beauty, gasping for air like a goldfish in an empty fishbowl, and then at last numb, entombed in glass, staring past his shoulder at the shadowy line where the wall met the ceiling, running toward the archway into the hall, running toward the door.
Four days after the rape, I went to a professor’s office to talk about the paper I was writing under his supervision. He closed the door and kissed me on the mouth. I froze. He was older, married, the father of two children. I’d admired his teaching, even had a crush on him, but I didn’t expect or want what happened. Yet I was prepared: Freeze. Submit.
It’s a familiar story. Older man uses power of position—as professor, employer, Hollywood producer—to sleep with vulnerable young women or men. I know of many people who’ve had similar experiences. It’s always wrong, and always difficult to navigate, and when you’re already damaged by child abuse and sexual assault, it can be devastating. Six months into the affair, I could see no way out. When I looked in the mirror, the face staring back at me was bleak, hopeless. I wanted my life to end.
I hadn’t always felt that way. I was a happy child, immersed in stories that seemed as much a part of my life as the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I ate for lunch. At nine years old I roamed the neighborhood with a paper walkie-talkie and a gang of boys, fighting crime, catching spies. I galloped around my living room on an imaginary horse, looked for secret gardens behind ivy-covered walls.
When I was ten, my uncle came up behind me on the stairs and put his hands on my chest, probing for developing breast tissue. As the abuse continued over the years, I began to suffer from anxiety, recurrent nightmares, and distressing mood swings. These symptoms worsened following the rape. Could I get better? At one point I sought help from a psychologist because my fear of heights made it difficult to cross the high, open bridge that lay between my home and my job. I’d feel a suffocating dread rise up through my chest into my throat. My palms would sweat, my vision blur. “Do you think it’s about my uncle?” I asked the psychologist.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied, “I want you to focus on learning relaxation, visualization, and positive self-talk.”
That worked—I was able to drive across the bridge again—but now I’m wondering why she thought a history of child abuse could be ignored.
I was fortunate, though. I’d always been safe in my home. I was resilient. I survived. But it wasn’t until I had a baby that I began to feel whole again, to love the body that nurtured this tiny being, to live patiently with the scars. Remember Talia? She was awakened not by a prince but by her child.
I also began to see how other survivors were telling their own fairy tales, sometimes at great cost. Daughters disowned for speaking out against abusive fathers. Women publicly disgraced, receiving death threats for speaking truth about Supreme Court candidates. Women like those interviewed for Ronan Farrow’s article, trapped in a hotel room with Harvey Weinstein’s naked erection. Abused, assaulted, silenced, humiliated—these women now spoke openly about their experience.
This is a fairy tale about a little girl, more of a tomboy than a princess. She was lucky. Her parents loved and listened to her; they spoke only words of hope and kindness. And even though they couldn’t always protect her, they were there to pick up the pieces.
When she was ten years old, she was assaulted by an ogre, I mean her uncle. She was changed. Silenced. Cut off from the rest of the world as if thrust behind a glass wall, as if suffocating in an empty goldfish bowl.
Time passed, and the girl’s predicament dragged on, as it often does in fairy tales. She felt helpless and ashamed as her uncle continued to abuse her at family get-togethers. She didn’t know how to keep herself safe. Dread hardened in her veins like cement.
But she didn’t lack courage. She endured the shame and dread. She started dancing, went to college and then graduate school. Where she was raped. Where the teaching career she’d planned was almost derailed by a pair of predatory instructors. She kept going. She married and had two sons. The marriage didn’t last, but the children gave her life purpose, and joy. She became an English professor and published a textbook. She read poetry with her students. She danced with her friends. She revived.
Now there is no wall of glass between her and the world. Now the mirror reflects her joy and strength, not her shame and helplessness.
And wouldn’t it be terrific if the fairy tale could end there? If happily ever after meant that Snow White didn’t ever dream she was back in the coffin, or Harvey’s hotel room, or her uncle’s kitchen? But even now the memories can punch her in the gut, cut her like a knife, hurl her to the ground. Even so many years later, blessed with family and friends, fulfilled by her work, she can be undone by a single word or by the glimpse of a shadow behind her.
And so it was that decades after my uncle’s first assault, I found myself in the emergency room. Once the doctors ruled out stroke or other medical cause for my symptoms, they talked about a panic attack. For the first time I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder due to repeated childhood abuse. I met a fairy godmother—I mean a trauma therapist—and asked for her help. Sexual assault can crush the spirit, tear the fabric of the self. Could these wounds be healed? I came to believe they could.
One day we talked about the rash at the corner of my mouth. I’d made a drawing of my face with something red streaming off to the side. “I wonder if it’s rage,” I said, “if it’s my own angry words trying to escape.”
“Don’t think too much, “said the therapist. “Just describe what you see.”
I saw flowers, a rich rosy pink, shimmering like satin. I saw rose petals flow from my lips and spiral around me, like a blessing. The rash disappeared.
Why then should I doubt myself? Why silence my own voice? After all, it’s not a swarm of hornets pouring from my mouth, not a gush of blood or acid or sewage. Now I “say uncle” to claim my story, and to tell of hope, and the possibility of joy, like a mist of fragrant rose petals, a mystery of grace.
Vivian Claire Cadbury teaches English at the Culinary Institute of America, including a course on hunger-themed literature and film. Her textbook, A Taste for Writing: Composition for Culinarians, is in its second edition. Current projects include a book about healing from trauma and an essay on Henry James’s The Golden Bowl.