It was the day after Thanksgiving. I was hungover and still reeling from the night before. I had no idea how to approach this situation. Should I ask her directly? Will asking her directly form her memory of what actually happened? Did anything actually happen? Will I just know something is wrong? Will she form a negative opinion or feeling about herself based on my response? my expression? my body language?
My Daughter woke up around 8am and came downstairs. She sat down next to me and cuddled. She was a bit clingier than usual. I thought maybe she was tired? She became defiant and disrespectful to her Dad. Still trying to tie her behavior to being overly tired, when a nap didn’t work, we took the kids out. We went to lunch and then to Color me Mine. (A place where you paint different types of pottery). She was quieter than usual. Clingier than usual. A general sadness was on her face. In her eyes. We drove home. Her, her Dad, her baby brother and myself were in the car. I decided I would ask an innocent question and see where it leads.
“What were all of you playing in the backyard last night, when you were sitting on Michael’s lap?” With more detail than a 5 year old typically has, she explained to me what every other child was doing in the backyard and exactly where they were. I instantly knew, this was too much detail for a random day. Something traumatic happened. Something so bad that she focused on everything going on around her, to escape from what was happening to her. She wouldn’t say what her or Michael were doing. I decided I would talk to her alone.
We got home and I convinced her to come to the store with me. I got a couple blocks from the house and decided I would try one more time.
“What were all of you playing in the backyard last night, when you were sitting on Michael’s lap?” This time her response was “I didn’t want to. I told him to stop.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I did everything I could to focus all of my energy on HER. Showing her love. Showing her support. I couldn’t let her see the rage and pain that was inside.
I asked her directly, if Michael hurt her. She replied that “it hurted. He wouldn’t let me go.” She started crying and said “I wanted to tell you but he told me I couldn’t tell you and Dad. I was scared.” I asked her to show me where he touched her, she pointed to her vagina. I asked her if it was under her panties or on top. First, she said under then said, “I don’t know.” I knew at this point that any other questions I had, would have to wait. My daughter was vulnerable right now, but incredibly brave. She needed to feel safe right now.
I pulled over.
I told her how proud I was of her. I told her she will never, ever see him again. I thanked her for telling me. I told her how brave she was. I think I said I love you a hundred times. I told her I was sorry. In my daughter’s stoic fashion she replied “it’s ok, Mom.”
I started driving home. I needed to get out of her sight. I needed to break down. My pain was becoming palpable and I didn’t want her to see or feel that. I told her I forgot my wallet and we had to stop at home. I left her in the garage. Then I went inside and broke her father’s heart with 4 words.
“He fucking touched her!”
I remember he was holding the baby. When I told him his face went white. It was a heartbreak I have never seen on this man. I told him I needed to leave and pull myself together. He agreed. We both knew her seeing me in that state would risk negative feelings about herself and her actions. I didn’t realize until later what incredible strength and love it took for him in that moment. To be completely selfless. To have 5 seconds to hear those words and then comfort his daughter. To allow me time to break, before he could. When we both needed to.
I drove a block away and parked. I called my sister-in- law. She was at a party and shouldn’t have answered… but she did. I’m so thankful for her and the strength she gave me in that moment. I cried and screamed into the phone explaining what happened. I kept saying how my daughter “would never be the same.” My worst fear had just materialized. My daughter has fallen victim to the same trauma that has controlled me for most of life. She would never be normal. Her life would be hard. It wasn’t fair. My anger and heartbreak were palpable. My sister-in-law listened. In a shaky voice she responded that we would get through it and my daughter would be OK. My sister-in-law was able to get me to a place where I could go home and comfort my child.
I came home. I hugged my daughter again. and again. She went up to her room to play in her castle tent, which would later become her safe place. A few minutes later, I went up to check on her. She was still quiet. I reminded her again, how brave she was. She asked me if she would ever see Michael again. I said, no. Then, she asked if I was going to tell Michael what she said. I wasn’t sure how to answer that question, so I said “I don’t have to tell him.” I told her she could choose. I said, “I can tell Michael what you told me and you can never see him again or I can not tell Michael what you told me and you will still never see him again.” She thought about the choices for a few seconds. Then she looked up at me, smiled and said, “tell him Moana is very upset with what he did and I never want to see him again.”
I was blown away by her response that night. She was the victim. She was five. Her abuse had just happened. A day earlier! Somehow she already knew he was wrong. She already had anger for what he did. She had an old soul with a resiliency and heart that I was so proud of. I knew her anger was a good sign.
After she went to sleep that night, her Dad and I finally got a chance to speak candidly. We both agreed, before going to the police, we should call Michael’s parents and let them know what she had told us. We finally spoke with Michael’s mother. We told her what we were told and got silence for a few moments. When she finally responded, her response was not apologies or empathy. She would go on to tell us that she doesn’t trust him alone with her daughter. She has alarms on his doors to hear him if he gets up at night. In an effort to explain his actions, she went on to say that he has the “mentally of a six year old and may be autistic.”
Let me be clear. What he did to my daughter was not curiosity. He was not playing Doctor. His actions were predatory. He held my child down and hurt her. He threatened her not to tell her parents.
I was angry. Did she know he was capable of this? Why didn’t she tell us? If she wanted to protect him and keep his issues confidential, why didn’t she watch him? As parents and as mothers we should be in this together for our children.
I went to bed that night heartbroken and angry. Toxic negative thinking controlled my mind. I kept thinking about what my daughter went through and how her father and I were only a few feet away. heartbroken over what she would face moving forward.
Somewhere in between all of the heartbreak was pride.
I was so proud of my daughter.
Her courage. Her bravery.
I was proud of her parents, because together, we made sure the first people she told believed her and allowed her to regain her feeling of safety.
I still had so many questions. We still didn’t know exactly what he did or how far he went. I would learn later that we will likely never fully know what he did. With no experience or comparison, a five-year-old cannot articulate sexual abuse. Over the next few months, we would get grim clues. Her triggers and feelings months after the abuse would lead us to believe it was more than touching.
Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.Danielle Bernock, Emerging with Wings: A True Story of Lies, Pain, and the Love That Heals