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New Possibilities

Rod Burke

This story first appeared in Peter Vogel's Australian magazine Certified Male, and is used here with Peter's kind permission.


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New possibilities.

By Rod Burke.


I carry no exterior marks on my broad, six foot frame that indicate anything of the battles and struggles of my past. Unless it be the sadness that often shows in my eyes. That sadness runs deep and is not easily erased.

I spent over 30 years struggling with the secret of being an object, a thing used for the pleasure of my stepfather's sexual needs rather than a loved and cared for child. I spent another 20 years trying to cope with the humiliation of my mothers rejection and denial. In the end, it nearly killed me. I tell my story now believing that the same kind of secrets, rejections and denial is killing others.

I have met men and women who, when they hear my story, tell me they have felt alone, isolated and hopeless in their feelings of guilt, anger, rage and terror at the prospect of "being found out", or "being alone". Knowing there is "another" with whom they can identify helped them on their own road of self discovery and awareness.

The story of my formative years until my early teen years is a story of daily physical and emotional abuse. My stepfather began his abuse of me from the moment he met my mother, when I was 2. He taught me to not only expect physical abuse as a normal part of life, but to accept those actions as common practice. I was set up, taught to believe that my body and my mind was not my own. Every part of me was his to use as he saw fit.

My stepfather was a veteran and a war hero. He told me that you had to be perfect, wear your clothes just so and have your hair just so if you wanted to be a soldier - or a cowboy or, for that matter, anything or anyone else. According to him, being perfect enough required special details that I was not old enough to understand. My stepfather assured me that he would teach me the necessary secrets to dressing properly and all the other things I needed to know. He would teach me to be a proper soldier. I was convinced that without his help I would never be good enough to do anything. He was a soldier - a hero - and knew the secrets of the proper way of dress for warfare and for ceremonies like the one I was privileged to see on Decoration Day. I believed that without his sanction and his approval I would never be anything except a small rather wimpy child. I valued his judgment and sought his approval with all my being. I wanted to wear a helmet and be a good soldier - a good child. Without him it was not possible.

It became a ritual that before any outing, if I had to dress up, that my stepfather took it upon himself to come to my room and help me. He would inspect me and my clothes with great care, then, impatiently decide that I had not done it well enough for myself -- he would have to help me so that it would get done right.

I never passed his inspections. I always had to get undressed and do the other things I was told. Most importantly, he told me that all of it was secret. He made me believe that it was like some very special ritual or right that no one else could know. If I told anyone it would be ruined -- and I would be ruined as well. It was essential that I keep all of those things secret or I would never be worthy, let alone perfect. I would never be a soldier, or a hero or anything else. People would laugh at me. I would not only be an embarrassment to myself, but would bring shame on the family as well.

He took those opportunities to use me to satisfy his physical and sexual needs. He touched me, handled me wherever he wanted and forced me to touch and handle him. Usually his physical and sexual need was meted out with some other form of physical violence.

Despite all of this the horror was that I was miserably dependent on my stepfather. In some terrible, subconscious way I knew he was the only one I could trust to keep the awful and hated truth. He was the only one I was certain would not tell that I was a part of his sick liaisons. Beyond this I wanted - no, I desperately needed his acceptance - no matter what I had to do to get that acceptance. And, the terrible part of it all is that the one thing I would never get was his acceptance. Even he could not accept me as a normal, worth while human being because I was only an object to be used to satisfy his sexual needs - not to love as a human being.

The abuse continued throughout my childhood. Once, when I was six, we were on vacation at a resort where the restaurant served fruit plates with the largest serving of ice cream I had ever seen. I was determined to have one for supper so I begged and pleaded until my parents finally allowed me to order the fruit plate with the caution that I had to eat it all.

When it arrived at the table I ate some of the fruit and all of the ice-cream. My mother and stepfather insisted that I eat it all. I insisted I could not. The deadlock was finally ended when my stepfather got up from the table, grabbed me by my ear and hauled me to our room. He ripped off my clothes and took off his belt.

I fought, kicked, twisted and turned, but it did no good. He grabbed my legs with his free hand and threw me on my stomach. His belt lashed out blow after blow and while he methodically beat me he somehow unzipped his pants. I felt the weight of him as he threw himself on top of me groaning and breathing heavily . . .

I can not - I will not describe the next few minutes. I will only describe the physical pain though it is beyond anything I can truly describe. I have had cuts and scrapes. I was beaten a number of times on that vacation. But this new pain was intensely different and still remains vivid in my memory because it was so incredibly unique. I knew he was where he should not be but had no idea what this was all about. I thought it was some new kind of punishment that I had to endure but, could not. I remember that I screamed. The pain of that rape has no equal to anything else in my experience.

A short time later, when he was finished with me he told me to get dressed, quit my crying and "act like a man". Dressing was a problem because of the stinging pain on my legs and buttocks. My legs were stiff and there was the other pain, the burning pain inside me. He took hold of my legs one at a time and jammed them into my pants.

Back at the restaurant he forcefully pushed me into a chair so that I had to face everyone at the table. I remember being surprised that not much time had passed because the others were just getting their deserts. Only my plate remained with its wilting and discolouring fruit and dribbles of ice-cream around the edge of the cantaloupe. My ears rang from the pulling and my bottom hurt badly from the beating and the penetration. I sensed that everyone was looking at me, waiting expectantly. It seemed to me that they waited without compassion and I thought that they were right -- they should hate me for making their meal go badly. I felt guilty that they had had to see my rebelliousness. I saw myself as a disobedient child and deserved what ever punishment I received.

Glaring at me, his eyes still flashing, my stepfather told me that I would not be allowed to do anything for the rest of the trip unless I ate every last bite of that fruit. I managed to push myself up to the table and pick up a spoon. Probably because of my breathless unease and shame, my stomach was rolling. I swallowed hard, scooped a large bite of it and shoved it into my mouth. Despite my best efforts erupted violently and I got sick at the table.

I heard my mother and the other family at the table gasp and gag at the mess I had made. My stepfather shot out of his chair like a bullet, grabbed me by the arm and unceremoniously dragged me back to the cabin with my mother following close behind. When we got to the cabin my stepfather pulled my pants down to my knees and beat me again.

My mother stood by and watched, hysterical in her embarrassed anger. Through my tears I could see her pale face as she wondered out loud, "How could I have made such a mess like that in public?" and she asked my stepfather "How dare he embarrass and humiliate them in front of their friends". I had committed the ultimate crime, the ultimate sin by embarrassing her in front of her friends. I deserved the spanking and any other punishment I received. I knew from that moment on that going to mother for solace or comfort was of no use. Clearly she had no sympathy for me at all.

When I was almost a teen I began to realize that what my stepfathers was doing was not right. I began to doubt him and his behaviour. In childhood I had kept my stepfather's actions secret from fear that if I did not keep them secret some great harm might come to me. I believed those threats that I would be put away or, even worse, the family would somehow disown and despise me for the freak I was.

As I grew older and learned from others I began to understand that some things were appropriate and some things were not. That sense of wrongness created a sense of confusion about not only myself, but also confusion about my stepfather who I wanted to care about. I believed fathers, even stepfathers should be respected. Though I did not know much about love I suspected children ought to love their parents, even if they were stepfathers.

Later in my adult life, friends of mine often remarked how easy going, empathetic and willing I was to listen to all sides of a story. People saw me as a person not easily drawn into an argument but, who preferred discussion and debate. I avoided any kind of confrontation at all costs. The truth was that I was always on guard. I could not, dared not let my emotions show. What appeared as empathy was actually an icy, calculated control. To maintain that control I had to avoid confrontation of any sort. To do that I had to isolate myself as much as possible from any situation that might require me to express feelings.

I could not be honest or truthful with anyone. To tell a little truth meant that I might be required, in the end, to tell the whole truth. I could not allow anyone to know the truth of my crippled emotions, my guilt's and my past. I could not, dared not, do that. I had to protect myself. I did so with an emotional distance that made me unapproachable on any personal level.

These problems plagued my first marriage, when I was 20 years old. I wanted someone to love me and care about me. But, from the beginning it did not work. Though my wife knew some of my sordid story of abuse, I could not let her know me emotionally. To let the walls I had created over the years be broken down was to be absolutely naked and exposed in the deepest psychological sense. I could be, and was, idealistic in my expression of love and care, but, could not truly express that love or care in true action. I was a fake -- and like all fakes, especially in the areas of care and love, I was not wholly successful in hiding my true self -- that self that had no confidence in the kind of love that is required for two people to become one.

Inevitably the relationship deteriorated. My work became more important than the marriage. I spent long, late hours at the drawing board. I allowed no time for my wife. She retaliated, demanding that I give her more time. The outcome was inescapable.

I was drinking far too much. I drank to forget, but could not. Drinking only amplified the emotions and the pain. Alone at home I would cry for no reason and sometimes for hours on end. I could not sleep and walked from room to room in the house for no other reason than to stare at the walls. At times the memories of my childhood would flood my mind and I would cry or rage at the world, my stepfather and God. When I drank at home, alone and isolated, two or three drinks would completely destroy my carefully controlled emotional world. I became even more depressed and drank more - but, it did no good.

I actually considered suicide. Thankfully I had neither the courage nor will to take my own life. Beyond the fear was this: Suicide would mean that my stepfather had won and I had lost. Despite my frustration and fear I could not allow that to happen. My life had become an ongoing, brutalising, degrading, self imposed nightmare of destruction. I resigned myself to coming up with some way of living with it. Besides, I was already committing a slower though no less permanent suicide by drinking. I knew that such careless concern for my own health would eventually do the job that I could not do myself. Such was my dark attitude that even my humour was black. I could see the epitaph on the headstone of my grave: "Here lies a fool killed by a life of lies - the razor blade was incidental".

The final outrage was the sudden realisation that my stepfather had molested my son. Though I didn't want to believe it and my child wouldn't, couldn't, admit it at the time, I suspected he had been abusing my own child - stealing my son's trust and his childhood - just as he had stolen mine. I remember the terrible sense of rage at my stepfather and the angry self recrimination I felt. Why had I not done something to confront this sordid issue in the past before my stepfather had had a chance to abuse my son? How could I have been so blind that I could not see that by not confronting those issues of my history it would put my child in jeopardy?

I believed that the abuse of my son, all of the family ills and troubles, the ongoing abuse of the past and the present, was my fault. I had not told when I was 6 or 10 or as a young adult. I did not want to suffer the consequence of being labelled a tattle-tale or a snitch. I had not spoken out or sought an advocate. I had kept my silence from fear or ignorance or shame and hid my stepfather's disease. I had kept that grubby and foul secret until it was too late. Guilt cursed and shamed me. I took on the burden of my son's abuse as my own fault. If I had done something about my stepfather years earlier, maybe my son would not have been in a position to be used. I had failed not only myself, but my child as well. I had to do something about it.

I wrote a brief letter that outlined the years of abuse. I demanded that my stepfather seek psychiatric help before it was to late - before he victimised other children.

I hired an attorney to present the letter to my stepfather and mother. My brother agreed to be present at the meeting; I did not go because I did not trust myself. I wanted my mother to now understand the horrors I had lived with all those childhood years. I wanted her to understand that this same thing was still going on with my son as the new victim. I wanted her to stand up for me and my children and renounce the man who had brought on this pain and suffering.

When my brother finally called his message was disheartening. He outlined briefly that my mother was stunned and disbelieving. She had listened to the letter and then wanted to know how I could have done or said such things. "How come he didn't come to the family with this - keep it in the family where it belonged?" she asked my brother and then broke into tears.

My stepfather was stoically silent as he listened to the damning words. He would not admit to anything. With ashen face he left the attorney's office comforting my mother.

That meeting ultimately came to nothing beneficial. The only evident result for me was this: The world I knew, that world of family, career and hopeful dreams had collapsed. My whole life fell into shattered, emotionally disjointed pieces. It would take nearly 20 frustrating years before the process of rebuilding my life could begin.

The evidences of child abuse finally overwhelmed me. I could no longer tolerate the condition I was in. The nightmares became a way of life and plagued me night and day. I could not tolerate being around people. I had lost all sense of contact with the real world because my emotions were always on edge. When I finally came to that rock bottom place in my gray house of isolation and picked up the telephone, my life finally began to change.

When I checked into the clinic I was scared. I wore a sport coat thinking that I should try to make a good impression. I thought I should not go there dressed in my usual sweat shirt and baggy jeans or they would think I was disreputable and probably, given the story I knew they had already heard, would think me crazy. I expected to find padded rooms and funny jackets with over long arms that tied across the front and around the back.

What I found instead was a group of people, professionals and residents, that were willing to take some risks. They were willing to help if - and this was the big "if," - I was willing to take the risk of revealing myself to them. The good people at the clinic were hard nosed and to the point with their treatment. Denial was not allowed and we had to be as specific and honest as possible.

I immediately became a challenge to the group and to myself. The years of self protective insulation built of denial, mistrust and pain were not easily removed. It was not that I did not want to be well and healed. I simply did not know how to overcome the fear.

After three weeks of counselling I had said very little about myself. My walls of isolation remained stubbornly in tact. No one knew me. No one trusted me. I did not trust them. My primary counsellor told me in the privacy of his office that the clinic was considering asking me to leave because it appeared I was making no progress. I would not communicate. I was in self denial. I might as well be back in the real world. Unless there was a change, I would not be able to stay at the clinic.

The thought of being put back on my own, being thrown into the hardness of the real world was devastating. I would die and I knew it. For the first time in my life the walls fell enough for me to be vulnerable. They fell enough for me to have a true emotional feeling that had nothing to do with child abuse.

I cried. I sat there in that chair feeling small and old and tiny and helpless and I cried like a baby. That singular experience was a breakthrough that I will never forget. I had cried before. I had felt fear before. But I had never been in a situation where help depended on my complete honesty - especially with myself. At that moment there was no one but me who would hold me or reassure me. I was in the most completely isolated place I had ever been in my life. If I did not take my own life into my hands and believe that that life was valuable then I would not have a life.

I still have nightmares - but they are not nearly as bad and certainly not as frequent. I would be a fool and a liar to tell you that just because I have come to terms with my past, I do not have moments of sadness, anger, frustration and many other emotions I can't even describe. The point is that I have the emotions. I can actually deal with those emotions. I am not inclined to subdue them or deny them. They are, just as my history is, a significant fact of me as a total and complete person. I no longer intend to avoid my history or my emotions any more than I care to avoid myself.

I hope that others who read this will be encouraged to find the courage to break down those inner walls of defence, look into the closets of their despair and face their personal demons. There is a terrible sadness in ambivalence . . . If a person believes there is no hope then there will be no hope.

For me there is hope. Just last evening I spent time with my grandchild, had a long chat with my son and got a kiss and hug from my lovely wife. Not long ago I would have considered those small things, those little occurrences, all but impossible. They are not impossible.

As I see it the future is full of possibilities.

Editor's Note:

A few days after submitting his story for publication, Rod died suddenly after suffering a stroke.


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