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History of Abuse

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By William K.

My brother Bob and I were ice fishing on Lake Shabbona, about 100 miles west of Chicago, and I'd just been speculating about the biological consequences of our piercing holes in a lake that had been frozen for months, opening it up to light and oxygen. Bob said something about the impact of sound and tried to imagine the eerie world of silence beneath Shabbona's seasonal shell.

I suddenly had the feeling that I knew the darkness beneath the ice, that years ago I'd been trapped on the bottom and could see other children playing and skating, had heard their muffled laughter above the surface.

I stood shivering, not quite 31 years old, married, with children. I had always been aware of an unsettling, seemingly random series of events that had occurred when I was eight years old. I remembered names and faces and places--everything from our summer vacation in Minnesota to the rattle of my third-grade teacher's heavy black rosary beads as she paced the aisle of the classroom at the south-suburban grammar school I attended. I even remembered the taunts from classmates and friends when for several weeks that fall I'd chosen not to speak at home or at school.

But not until I was standing in rubber boots on the frozen lake, my eyes locked on a Styrofoam bobber floating in a six-inch hole punched in the ice, did the reason for that odd sequence of events finally surface.

It didn't spring into my consciousness all at once. First shapes, then whole figures emerged in the dim light. The first image was benign--my father's face. He was sitting across from me at the breakfast table, worrying about me, about my strange behavior. It was the 15th day of my refusing to speak, and there was fear in his eyes. Fear in the face of a man who'd always seemed imperturbable.

"Would you please answer your mother?" he said.

I hadn't become mute as part of some plan. It was just that after what happened it felt safer not to speak. It had felt the same on the second day. And by the third day the silence had begun to feel like the snow fort my best friend Randy and I had made during Christmas vacation, in which we hid, all giggly and cozy, when the mailman walked by, not knowing we were there.

Dad was the only person I knew who acted normal in front of Father Mark (I have changed all the names in this story to protect members of my family). He would talk to Father Mark about baseball, even say hell in front of him. This morning he looked shaken. I felt this pulling in my chest, the kind that tugs your mouth down and makes you cry, and I almost burst the silence right then. But he went back to turning the pages of the newspaper. I was just a kid, but I already sensed that a father got to thinking a certain way about his son, and you didn't want to mess that up. I hunkered down in the snow fort.

I wasn't a whiny kid or one of the kids who arrived late and left early on the special bus. I was a pretty regular third-grader. Once the janitor caught and dragged me, and Randy, to the principal's office for stealing cartons of chocolate milk from the cooler.

On the eighth day of silence I was in the TV room watching The Mickey Mouse Club with my brother Bobby, who was 11. He would laugh at something and poke me to see if I saw the same thing. Of course I saw it, sitting right next to him, but it's better if you poke somebody and are laughing together. Anyway, Annette Funicello came onstage dressed like a nun, which reminded him of Father Mark. He said Father could get me to quit my silent treatment if anybody could. Bobby must have seen something in my face, because he stared at me for a minute before he looked back at the TV.

Soon he was poking me again. "I thought you were Father Mark's little 'sidekick.' Ain't that what he calls you?"

I remember being surprised that he seemed to know there was a problem between Father Mark and me, though he couldn't possibly know what.

The priest had been a friend of my parents for as long as I could remember. He was a Franciscan pastor at a parish in Minnesota, but he would often visit us. My mother always said we were blessed to have a priest as a special friend. My parents hadn't gone to college, and they saw Father Mark as a repository of knowledge and culture and sophisticated humor. He gave them the illusion that they were moving in higher social circles as he shared with them jokes about the bishops and cardinals and famous politicians with whom he sometimes mingled. He would write letters that my mother would study and reread, sending me downstairs for the dictionary to learn what he meant when he said he was "edified" after his last trip to the Vatican. She and my father seldom failed to mention their friend Father Mark in conversations with other adults from work or the parish or the neighborhood.

Back then I hadn't puzzled out what Father Mark derived from our family, though it seemed as if he were my godfather. He was always sending me presents, writing me letters, teaching me things. I was proud of how he singled me out, and I thought Bobby was envious, even though I'd given him an electric train and a transistor radio Father Mark had sent me, after I used them both for a while.

One day I received a package in the mail from Minnesota, a small box wrapped in brown paper and white string. Inside was a silver watch with hands that glowed in the dark. It was the first watch I'd ever had. I liked to carry it in my palm, to feel its cold doubloon heaviness as I lay in bed. I would take it to school and hide it in my desk. On those long afternoons when Sister Elizabeth would sit in her chair, half asleep, while we did endless exercises in our phonics workbooks, I would rest my hands inside the desk and touch the watch's buffed metal housing and polished crystal.

Randy asked me where I got it.

"From Father Mark," I said. "You don't know him. He's specialer than our parish priests, since he's a Franciscan."

"He must be crazy or something to give that to you."

At home that afternoon I repeated Randy's remark to my mother without attribution. My head jerked back, my face burned, and when my eyes refocused she was standing over me, her right hand on her chest, her gray eyes searching mine in horror. Usually she would just spank me, so this slap on the face impressed upon me that referring to a religious personage with third-grade hyperbole was a heinous sacrilege. Being Father Mark's little pal gave privilege but not license.

His having chosen me made me feel like I had a "religious calling," as our schoolbook covers advertised it. After all, Father had all those altar boys in his own parish and all kinds of nephews and cousins, yet I was the one he spent all that money on. And we weren't even related. I thought he must be rich, and I felt it was safe to ask my mother about that. She said that as a Franciscan, he'd taken a vow of poverty, so any extra money he had from the collection he would spend on others. I was pretty lucky, I thought, and I sure didn't mind the presents.

An eight-year-old boy, especially one enrolled in a Catholic school, still straddles the threshold between fantasy and reality. Demons wearing lascivious smiles perch on his left shoulder and white-clad angels with disapproving frowns on his right. He's mesmerized by stories of Lourdes and Fatima and Guadalupe, and each night is prepared to welcome his very own vision, its evanescence framed by his darkened bedroom window. He believes priests have special access to the preternatural universe, since they know the magic words that turn bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. Sister Elizabeth tells the New Testament stories of the emergence and power of priests, explains that they're Jesus's surrogates on earth. So it's practically a sin not to stand when Father Murphy enters the classroom for religious instruction or to keep your eyes open while receiving the good Father's blessing before he leaves.

Being befriended by one of them was for me the highest pinnacle of miracles and indecipherable biblical messages. One day I laughed when Randy bragged about meeting White Sox great Nellie Fox at the miniature golf course. A mere mortal, I would have said, had I known the words.

So I felt particularly guilty on those weekends when Father Mark stayed with us and I'd get to sleep with him in his room. I'd pretend I was just turning over in my sleep, but I was really awake, turning over so that his warm, sweaty hand would have to pull away from my privates. I felt ashamed, since pretending was the same as a lie, except if you were playing a game like Old Maid.

He's reading me "Hansel and Gretel" from the red dictionary-size volume he gave me last winter, and I'm getting sleepy, almost don't even know his hand's in there. It just naturally, slowly went there, and he just kept reading, with expression and everything. But it doesn't feel good, probably because it's too tight. If only it weren't so tight, I wouldn't have to lie, to pretend I'm asleep, to edge away from him. I smell cigars on him, and salt, and something sour. Tomorrow he'll be gone and saying mass and being revered by all those people before I wake up and get out of my pajamas, and here I am doing a dishonest thing to this churchman.

Some of the details that emerged that morning on Lake Shabbona were clear, some hazy. I was fairly certain that I'd been around eight years old because I remembered a black-and-white snapshot, which my mother still has, of me holding a birthday cake with eight candles, and Father Mark visible off to the side. He'd given me a Garcia bait-casting reel and Eagle Claw fishing rod--equipment my older brothers envied. But I couldn't remember when he'd started touching me, so it may have been long before that birthday. I'd been too young to divide my life into small chapters. There'd been the school year, and then the endless summer.

Only a few pictures came into my mind of my family visiting Minnesota, no chronicle. In one picture I'm sticking my head out the car window because the gray stone cross atop his church is in sight, and I've already been told that I get to stay at the rectory while the rest of the family stays at a motel. In another I wake up alone in the bed in the rectory, and Father Mark comes into the room, grinning, calling me sleepyhead, and then takes down a white cardboard box full of nickels and dimes and quarters and tells me I can scoop out as many as I want. Another picture, foggy, is of a summer evening when I get to ride in what's usually my mother's seat in the front of the station wagon. Father Mark is up front with dad, and he lets me sit by the window. I remember the sound of crickets, the smell of corn nearly ready to be harvested, the hypnotic vibration of wheels rolling. I also remember thinking that I'm probably a crybaby for being uncomfortable with Father Mark's clumsy, insistent hand inside my underwear while he and my unwitting father talk through the miles and the darkness.

The picture that came back most clearly, in the slowest motion, was of the last Friday evening that Father Mark stayed at our home. My parents customarily gave up their bedroom for him, since it was like having Jesus himself in the house.

He's unpacking his black suitcase, which smells of leather and Old Spice and tobacco. It's laid out on my parents' large bureau, and I'm staying close, since he has tons of nifty things in his suitcase, things my father doesn't have--a portable alarm clock, a transistor radio, soap on a rope, an electric back massager, a silver cigar cutter, unopened packages of medals and rosaries. He lifts out a wooden snap case and hands it to me. Inside is a battery-operated shaver that sticks on the wall with a suction cup.

My mother comes in, after knocking on the door.

"Yes?" says Father Mark.

"I called our rectory," she says, "and they said the eight o'clock mass was covered and that they would see, would call back."

In the mirror I can see Father Mark watching me as I "shave" my chin. Next I see him go to tickle me, and I spin away.

"You're sneaky," he says, grinning.

"You are," I say.

"Don't you dare talk to Father that way!" says my mother.

"It's all right," says Father Mark. "What about the six o'clock mass?"

"That's what they're going to call back with. You know, Father, I think they're a little jealous since you're a Franciscan and they're just secular priests. You'd think they'd be happy to have you say mass here."

Father Mark chuckles. I like how he laughs. He looks like the weatherman on the six o'clock news, only with a Roman collar. He's German and says things like danke. He's more like a kid, I guess. Not even Uncle Terry can get him mad, and Uncle Terry gets everybody else to argue with him about communists and colored people.

The evening feels like a holiday. My mother and father aren't yelling at us too much because Father Mark is here. They even seem to forget how bad I've been lately.

It's Friday, and everyone's in a popcorn mood--my mother makes popcorn on Fridays and lets us eat it in the living room. Dad talks with Father Mark about the White Sox after dinner, and I run out the batteries of my electric shaver while sitting on Father's knee. We go for a walk to the Dairy Queen, and Father buys my brother and me double cones. He says his dessert is his cigar. He's always saying funny stuff.

When we get back they watch the White Sox on TV, and I go into the bedroom, turn out the lights, and try to go to sleep. I doze off, but I wake up to see Father Mark removing his shirt and collar in front of the dresser. I pretend I'm asleep.

"I see you in the mirror, you little rascal," he says, not turning around.

I can't hide my smile, but I keep my eyes shut tight.

"Well, my little sidekick is asleep, so I guess I'll just read one of these stories to myself," he says. He sits on the bed, one leg still on the floor. I hear pages turning.

"Rumpelstiltskin," he begins.

I try to draw the picture of the little man in my brain, but I keep getting his face mixed up with that of Grumpy from Snow White. I guess I fall asleep again.

I expect it to be light when I open my eyes, because I hear noises, but it's still night. Bobby must be up to his old tricks, has me pinned to the mat. I feel his warm breath. I try the old Killer Kowolski turn-the-table move, but I can't budge him. Just as I'm thinking how hot it is, since we're both wet with sweat, I have the sudden fear that maybe Bobby had an accident in the bed. Then I get ashamed, feeling that it couldn't have been Bobby, since he's 11, and that it's probably me.

This last thought makes me open my eyes. I notice the glow-in-the-dark crucifix that means I'm in mom's room, and I smell stale-salt Dutch Masters cigars, which means that Father Mark, not Bobby, is on top of me.

I squirm beneath him, clearing my shoulder enough to roll away. In my head I say, "Saint Francis, pray for us," a prayer so that Father won't discover the bed is wet.

In the dark I feel for the floor but can't reach it with my hand. I slide down the edge of the mattress until I feel the smooth, varnished wood of the floor. I kind of dog-paddle onto it, crawling toward the door, making too much noise.

"Where are you going?" comes the voice from the bed.

"To the bathroom, Father."

"All right," he says. "I think you were having a nightmare. Are you OK?"

"Yes, Father."

"Come back as soon as you're finished. Don't be a bad boy and wake anyone."

Still on my knees, I open the door and crawl out into the hallway, where the air is cooler, sweeter--like when you've had the covers over your face and suddenly pull them down.

In the bathroom it hurts, like I have a rash. I try to wipe myself off. I'm cold and shivering. I don't feel good, and I'm not sure why. I don't know what to do, because Father told me not to wake anyone else.

I pause outside his door in the hallway. I open it. That's the right thing, that's what I should do. There's a safe kind of darkness in there, a darkness that will keep me out of trouble, let me stay his favorite. A darkness of gifts and letters in the mail, of the smell of cigars, of boxes of nickels, of being chosen over my brothers and sisters and classmates, of being specialer than other kids. But in that same darkness is something frightening, something that hurts me and makes me sad, something I don't understand and don't know how to say. I try not to cry. After all, I'm going on nine.

"It wasn't a fish," said Bob. He was leaning over the hole bored through 36 inches of Lake Shabbona's black ice. "It was snagged on the bottom of the ice wall. Can you imagine that?"

"Yes," I said. I looked down at the orange float in the ice hole. The opening was freezing up, a clear skin of ice forming on the water's surface. Wrapped in a bulky snowmobile suit, I felt naked and disgraced. I looked away from Bob, sure he would see the whole story, every detail, in my eyes.

At first I thought I must be remembering a dream. But as more and more images appeared, fitting like the right puzzle pieces in the spaces between what I knew were real episodes, fear filled me.

The memories were triggered that day, but it didn't feel like I'd been given startling or tragic news. It was more like I was watching an old home movie of events I'd forgotten--I reviewed them with neither shock nor incredulity, for they'd obviously happened and I'd obviously been there. All I had to do was articulate what they meant to me as an adult.

I did a quick inventory. I felt no psychological or emotional damage. I thought I was leading a normal life. I'd experimented a little with drugs, along with everyone else in the 60s. Drunk too much at certain social functions, but not to any degree that was problematic. Had the usual marital conflicts over finances, in-laws, whether to spank the children, and not enough sex. Verbal and psychological battles, but never physical ones.

I had a good job, a secure future. I'd become an atheist, but that was due more to my college education than to my childhood. I had no abnormal fears, believed in neither psychic nor spiritual phenomena, was an empiricist but not a cynic, politically tolerant but not fanatically liberal.

I was liked by my colleagues and acquaintances, but that wasn't important since I wasn't into a lot of socializing. I didn't care for cocktail parties, meetings, or gossip and liked to eat alone, jog, go to movies, vacation, drive, fish, and work alone. I preferred the company of trees, rivers, and wildlife. I had no police record, had an impeccable work record, and was what's considered a model citizen.

Sometime after that day I theorized that my brain had allowed the memories to surface only after it was assured of my normalcy--it had determined that there was no longer a need to protect me, that I was confident and mature enough to handle my past.

I knew that it was generally accepted that the mind can block out trauma, but I also knew that the phenomenon of repressed memories had been questioned and in some cases proved false. I read the accounts in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune. Many involved cases of multiple-personality syndrome, and all of them centered on recollections induced through therapy or hypnosis, the implication being that the analysts or their methodologies had implanted fictional memories.

But when I was 31, I had no concept of repressed memory, a phrase that wasn't commonly used in the early 80s. I hadn't gone to a therapist or undergone hypnosis. I was fishing. Later my brothers and sisters would corroborate people, places, names, times, events. They all remember Father Mark's public relationship with me, and in retrospect see it as very odd. It made sense when I told them. Bob said, "It doesn't surprise me."

The rest of my memory of that one night and the next morning is clear, though the pictures of subsequent days are opaque.

Standing alone in the dark, I decided not to go back into his room. I'd like to say it was youthful courage, or my sense of propriety or even morality winning out over greed for the attention and privilege a middle child in a large family craves. Or the way my parents and the nuns brought me up, teaching me that the devil can come in disguises and bearing gifts.

But it was none of these things. It was fear. Awe for Father Mark had turned to fear. What he'd done that night was incomprehensible to me as a child, but it had made me sense evil--and the power it seemed to give him made me afraid. This wasn't the chiding, loving discipline that had made me feel cared for. I sensed that he'd somehow used my adoration and my parents' trust to hurt us all. To this day I tremble slightly when I smell a burning cigar.

In the face of that fear I was drawn like a magnet toward warmth and love. I tiptoed down the hallway and sneaked into Bobby's room. The last thing I wanted to do was make more trouble by waking him, so I crawled under his bed, hugged my knees, and listened to his breathing until I fell asleep.

Father Mark left at dawn the next day for mass, after which he must have returned to Minnesota. He was gone when I woke up.

My body still hurt--the burning pain brought tears to my eyes. I walked into the kitchen, where my mother was. She knelt and held me, seemed to cry with me, and lifted me off the ground. She was so smart, sensed something serious that was the world's fault and not my own, I thought. Why didn't I go to her before?

She set me on the breakfast table, and I remember the early sunlight streaming through the storm door, illuminating stray strands of her hair. I felt ensconced in her kitchen-warm aura of goodness. She wiped my face with a cool washcloth and kissed me. "What's the matter, William?"

"Father Mark." I could barely say his name. I leaned my face against her shoulder. She smelled like detergent.

"Tell me about Father Mark."

"He hurt me."

"I'm sure it was an accident, William."

I shook my head. "He does things. A lot."

"What things?"

"He puts his fingers, mama, inside my underwear, sometimes at night when everybody is there."

She stood up slowly. I felt panic. "Well, that's OK--it's OK. I don't care. But last night it was bad--different--and I didn't, couldn't go back. I didn't want to tell."

Her face had the look of iron that often preceded a whipping. But she had to know this was different. I held my arms out to her. She stood still, so I lunged for her. She didn't extend her arms, and I slid down her dress to the floor. I felt the crying coming, but somehow held back. The floor was cold. She left the room and returned with a rosary, a large black one. "Get up," she said.

I started to stand.

"No. Kneel. I want you to say the rosary. I want you to think about what you did. Maybe by praying you will realize what a terrible sin it is to lie."

"It ain't a lie."

She swung at me backhanded, her knuckle glancing off my forehead because I'd ducked. Her face reddened with anger. "Pray," she said.

"I can't."

This time she caught my face full. It burned. I lost my breath and couldn't start the Apostles' Creed, and she hit me again, this time with her hand balled up so she wouldn't hurt her fingers.

I braced myself for another blow, but she walked down the hall, into the bathroom, and closed the door. She called from the bathroom that she'd better hear me saying the rosary.

My mouth hurt. My ears rang. But suddenly the floor began to seem like my friend, like a raft. I felt an absurd buoyancy. I wouldn't say the rosary. Not ever. I thought of breaking the string of beads, but it felt better just to let them drop onto the floor.

She came back into the kitchen and spotted the rosary on the floor. I didn't look at her, not because I was afraid, but because this time I didn't believe I had to.

"William, what is the matter with you?"

I said nothing. I felt power swell from my silence.

"Don't you realize that you're lying about one of Jesus Christ's own messengers?"

She scooped up the rosary and pressed it into my hands. "Say it," she said. "Pray for forgiveness."

I dropped the rosary again, and she slapped me. I looked into her eyes. Not glaring. Not pleading. Just showing her I wouldn't pray--I wouldn't even speak. Suddenly she looked afraid, and I nearly reached up to her.

She didn't hit me again, but she didn't dismiss me from the kitchen. I sat on the floor, writing invisible words on the linoleum, while she talked with her mother on the telephone, did the dishes, lectured me about the sacrifices the religious must make. She wouldn't look at my face. Finally she said I could leave if I said one decade of the rosary. I silently refused, then stood up slowly, deliberately, and walked out of the kitchen. I didn't look back, and her silence matched mine. It would be an entire month before I would speak another word.

My silence didn't feel like a hardship. My brothers and my friends seemed to grudgingly admire me for being involved in some sort of solitary game of intrigue or for so determinedly taking somebody up on a dare. My parents and teachers set up appointments for me with the family physician, who recommended a follow-up visit to an ear specialist. I didn't want to go to the specialist's office, especially after Bobby's authoritative description of the augerlike instrument that would have to be threaded into my left ear until it emerged from my right.

On the school playground the day after the appointment, on the 31st day of my silence, Randy had a green rubber ball in his hands and about a hundred other third-graders on top of him when his eyes found me standing on the periphery.

"Randy, flip it here," I shouted. He did, and I was off running.

My silence had been a conscious choice. The decision to block the memory of what Father Mark had done to me was subconscious. He himself didn't disappear. Perhaps he knew he wouldn't be betrayed. He still came for dinner, anniversaries, birthdays. But he no longer stayed overnight, ostensibly because he'd been transferred to Chicago, or because he was too busy, or because there was more room at Uncle Terry's house.

I'd stopped being his special pal, but everyone seemed to see this too as a natural evolution. I was bigger, was on a baseball team, and had a new special pal who was nine years old. I'd still say, "Hi, Father," and shake his hand, and politely answer his questions about school. I'd still get a present from him at Christmas, but only a token item, such as a glow-in-the-dark Infant of Prague coin bank, just like the ones he gave to each of my brothers. I remember thinking it was a shame that he'd been transferred, for it seemed to have made him poor.

My younger brother seemed to become attached to Father Mark, and Father Mark to him. I don't remember having much of a reaction, beyond thinking he would get lots of gifts now. After Shabbona I asked my brother if he'd been molested too, but he angrily denied it.

Long before I retrieved this memory, when I was in my 20s and recently married, my mother had telephoned with the news that Father Mark had died. He was only in his late 50s, but my mother said he had complications from severe arthritis. She asked if I remembered the way his fingers had been bent even at a young age, and she ventured that some of the damage was probably a result of his being held in a prison camp when he'd gone to China as a missionary. She talked about the grief expressed by the parishioner who'd called her, about the love of his flocks in Minnesota and Chicago. I was quiet, listening absently, as the image of his gnarled white hand with the thin, wiry strands of hair crisscrossing the knuckles rose vivid in my mind.

Today I think it curious that the news of his death didn't spur the recollection, though I do remember being afraid that my mother would start reminiscing about Father Mark and me, about Father's little sidekick. She didn't. Nor did she ask me to accompany her and my father to his funeral, though I'm sure she expected that I would.

It's nearly 20 years since Shabbona, 40 since that night. But until the day my father died he believed that Father Mark was a wise man and a saint whose friendship conferred both spiritual grace and social status upon our family. My mother still believes that. In the years since Shabbona, neither my siblings nor I have ever disabused her of this notion.

After I decided to write this story I called Bob to tell him and to ask him to read what I'd written. When he read it he said he admired the "dramatic irony" with which I described my life since the last night Father Mark molested me.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You know, how you protest too much that there weren't any ill effects."

"But there weren't. Not really."

"You can't be serious. What about in high school and college? We all thought you were a social pariah."

I knew that he meant what I thought of as shyness, but I didn't know that my family had considered it anything abnormal. Bob seemed to think of it as a decade of clinical, pathological introversion.

It was true that I hadn't cared to talk to strangers, to relatives outside my immediate family, to teachers, classmates, clerks, waitresses. Especially not to girls. Throughout high school I never ate lunch in the cafeteria for fear of having to socialize. I'd walk to the local Prince Castle or McDonald's instead. In college it was the same--I'd walk a mile through snow or rain rather than mingle with fellow undergraduates.

I avoided part-time jobs that required interviews and never asked a girl on a date. My only companions were my brothers or the few friends I'd known since childhood.

I wouldn't have communicated at all if it hadn't been for writing. A letter to the college paper got me an invitation to join the staff, and I consented to write features as long as I could just drop off my essays in the mailbox.

But eventually my comfort and pleasure in words and books gave me direction in my life and my career. I met my wife, we started raising a family, and I slowly seemed to grow out of my shyness.

Yet after that cold February morning at Shabbona I sensed that something had been stolen from me that hadn't been restored along with my memory. I wondered about the people and opportunities and joys lost to me during the years when I was so withdrawn. But I'll never be able to do more than wonder.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Rebecca Jane Gleason.

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