CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse.
By Galla Peled
“Truth or dare?” Russell, our babysitter for the night, demanded. Russell was the oldest cousin. He was 17, and deemed responsible enough to babysit. Every Saturday night my parents dropped me off at my cousin’s split level home in suburban Detroit, while they went out for dinner and maybe a show with my aunt and uncle. Every Sunday morning they came to pick me up, and we would all have breakfast together before we went home. My mom made tomato sauce for my Aunt’s scrambled eggs and we kids took turns shaking cinnamon sugar out of a plastic bear dispenser onto our toast.
Shortly after the adults went out, we gathered on the brown shag carpet of the master bedroom and closed the door. Playing there with the door closed felt clandestine and was a little bit exciting. “Truth or dare?” Russell pressed his sister, Lizzie. She and I were both six, and Neil, Lizzie’s other brother was eight. Lizzie had lost a hand at Blackjack and the rules were that if you lost, you had to choose a truth or a dare. Since Russell was the oldest, he always got to deal and make up the rules. For some reason he almost always won; Neil, Lizzie, and I took turns losing. With each loss we removed an article of clothing. Once we were naked, when one of us lost a hand, we had to choose a truth or a dare. Our choice could be overruled by the dealer, so essentially we were always dared to fulfill his fantasy. It was a punishment for losing.
TRUTH: Childhood sexual abuse can be defined as any activity that engages a child in sexual activities that are developmentally inappropriate.
DARE: Lizzie was flat chested and hairless. The veins that stood out on her skin were as blue as her eyes, her six-year-old body a stretched-out version of a toddler. She instinctively used one arm to cover her nipples and the other to cover her private parts. She cowered next to the bed. “Dare!” Russell decided for her, and challenged her to walk atop his spread-eagled legs as he reclined back on his elbows. His penis stood in the nest between his legs, threatening all of us with its presence. We knew if she could not complete the dare to his satisfaction, she would have to perform another task until he was appeased. I watched, afraid for her, but stimulated at the same time. The woolen carpet scratched my own private parts and I liked how it felt. At least I still had my shirt on.
Lizzie was graceful and slender. She was able to walk the length of his legs without falling.
TRUTH: One in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic status.
DARE: Next hand. Russell dealt and before I knew it, he called “21.” He showed us his hand. There it was, another 21: an ace and a king. Neil was still mostly dressed and guarded the door. I noticed that Neil was sometimes able to get out of stripping and punishments. He had a seven and a ten. Lizzie had an eight and a six. I had a five and a three. Again. I had lost again. My eyes filled with tears while I forced a smile. I was slightly chubby, my body looked like I might actually have tiny breasts and I felt intense shame. I didn’t want my cousins to think I was a baby, and those were the rules. It was my turn to take off my top, my last piece of clothing before I was completely naked. I looked at Russell and the others, not wanting to. “It’s okay,” Russell encouraged. “Take it off.”
TRUTH: Most sexual abuse in children requires little violence or coercion. The great majority is perpetrated by a relative or another trusted adult.
DARE: I could barely breathe through my smile as Russell coaxed me on. I took off my top and, like Lizzie, my hands automatically went to cover myself. “No arms,” he said, making up more rules as we went along. “Truth or dare!” he demanded, though I protested it wasn’t my turn for that. He said I deserved it because covering up was against the rules. “Truth” I tried to say but my throat was dry and I was overruled by Russell’s call for a dare. It was my turn to walk on Russell’s hairy legs. I couldn’t take my eyes off his penis. My arms and legs were all tingly and had turned to rubber. My stomach was filled with lead. My tiny vagina filled up with a sensation that baffled me as it begged to be touched. I stood up and perched on his legs. After a few attempts at finding my balance it was obvious that yet again I wouldn’t be able to walk that walk. I fell. Russell got to come up with a punishment. Just looking at his big hard penis was punishment enough for me but no, I knew from past experience, punishment meant touching it, kissing it, or licking it with my tongue.
On that day, dare meant lying on my stomach naked, with my butt in the air. I took him into my mouth (I still had all my baby teeth), while he stroked my hair. I could barely breathe when we were startled by a sound. “I think I hear the garage door opening” yelled Neil, always my savior. We scrambled out of the room, pulling our clothes back on. Racing into our beds, we dove under the covers. The game was over for the night.
“This is a secret game,” Russell warned. “It’s just between us.” So it was never mentioned, never talked about, not even among ourselves. We would replay it every Saturday night when our parents went out.
TRUTH: Only 7% of childhood sexual abuse is ever officially reported.
DARE: “Mommy,” I said, after nearly two years had gone by. “I don’t want to go over to the cousins on Saturday night anymore.” My mother sat down next to me on our worn red leather couch and tried to pull me onto her lap. “Why Sweetie?” I shrugged my shoulders and refused to look her in the eye. In her softest, most loving voice, she asked, “Does Russell do things to you? Does he touch you or make you do things you don’t want to do?”
My eyes widened and mouth fell open. “How did you know?”
“Well,” my mom replied, “When I was your age my best friend’s brother babysat for us. He did things to me.” Now she was the one unable to make eye contact.
Horrified, I pulled away. ‘She knew.’ I said to myself, filling with rage. She knew that this could happen, and she sent me there anyway. I wanted to run out of the room and throw up. “We’ll bring in a babysitter,” she said, staring off past the window. “Russell won’t sit for you ever again.”
At least she understood and I didn’t have to spell it out. I was relieved that the games were over, but my anger toward my mother lasted for nearly fifty years.
“I will talk to your father,” my mother cautioned. “Don’t you ever tell Daddy about this.”
I never did. For decades I never told anyone and no one ever mentioned a word about it. Russell continued to be a part of our lives. Our families spent nearly every weekend and holiday together with our grandparents. Being the oldest, Russell was treated as an adult. He joined the ROTC, got good grades, and was on a path to success. He was an important member of our family, and I learned to keep quiet and shove down my feelings. Neil brought me some relief when he introduced me to pot when I was twelve, and he and I would wander off to get high in the woods behind the house.
TRUTH: Girls who experienced sexual abuse are more than three times as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. For most of these girls, substance abuse begins at an early age.
DARE: Russell came to visit once when I lived in California. I was learning Shiatsu massage and had to practice my skills. He had a bad back and often needed to be treated for it. He lay on the floor of my living room so I could work on his back. My husband and kids were there watching TV.
I kneeled next to Russell on the floor, in the manner of a Shiatsu practitioner. Right knee on the floor closest to the patient, left knee bent with left foot planted firmly on the floor, facing toward the patient’s head, elbows locked, thumbs extended. Every time my thumbs made contact, I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t stand touching him, but ignored my feelings and wanted to die.
TRUTH: Adult survivors of sexual abuse suffer more from depression, chronic physical pain, and autoimmune diseases. Their childhood experience has a lifelong impact on their health and well-being.
DARE: Russell and his wife visited us after we moved to Jerusalem. He was now a professional army man. The kids were excited to have guests and started jumping on him, roughhousing and fooling around. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Russell pull my lovely, laughing, trusting, daughter with her blond curls and expansive smile onto his lap. She was eight years old. My other daughter was six, with long brown pigtails and soft skin; her chubby little shoulders still smelled like babyhood. They were the same ages I was back then. They were all laughing and having fun, but I snapped. Now a mother, I spoke up for my daughters as I never could for myself.
“Get out,” were the words that somehow came out of my mouth. At first I stammered and was barely heard. I felt the power behind those words rumble up inside me and I stood up and walked to the middle of the room. “Get out of my house!” I raised my voice and pointed toward the door. No one asked for a reason and Russell and his wife, Sherri, picked up their suitcases and left.
TRUTH: Finally after ten years of marriage I began to tell the story. I told my husband and I told my neighbor – an explanation as to why her teenage sons couldn’t babysit for my girls.
DARE: Some years later, Russell told me the army had sent him to Israel again. After a lifetime of pretending that nothing bad had happened, we actually were still talking. He stayed in a room in a guesthouse, and did not get in touch right away. The same dread I lived with for much of my life returned. I felt sick all the time, nauseated and short of breath. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, anxious he might suddenly appear. I scanned the crowds in front of me on the streets so I could duck into a nearby building or alleyway if I saw him approach.
It seemed nearly impossible to shake my fears and sense of impending doom. The only thing that gave me any relief at all was drinking until I passed out in my own vomit, or binging on chocolate bars then forcing my fingers down my throat.
TRUTH: Some 70% of women with eating disorders were sexually abused as children.
DARE: One Friday afternoon I was busy in the kitchen in our home in Jerusalem. The fan was on, but did not dent the heat. I was baking a cake when I stopped to answer the knock at the door.
Russell stood there wearing green khaki shorts, and a US Army T-shirt. He had a crew cut and the look of an army officer. Unfamiliar with the city, he had walked for two full hours in the noonday sun, without a hat or water. He shifted his weight from foot to foot waiting to be asked to come in.
“Let’s talk,” I said, the egg beater still in my hand. I didn’t want him in my house, and ushered him back out onto the street. “I don’t want to see you,” I said. “I am sick of pretending that nothing ever happened,” still unable to name “it.”
“Okay,” he said, quickening his step. “Fine.” He ran off into the sweltering heat for another two-hour trek with a bad back and no water. It was Friday afternoon, and most of the stores were already closed. I smiled to myself.
TRUTH: Two days later, Russel called and asked to meet. I met him in a hotel lobby downtown. My daughter, now 18, came with me for support and waited on the other side of the room. Though she is one of the strongest women I know, I’m not sure how appropriate it was to have asked her to come. Still, I was very happy she was there.
“I didn’t rape you.” Russell said.
“I know. What you did was bad enough.”
“But that was child’s play,” he said.
“Yes, but I was a child. You were not.”
Russell was silent for a few moments, and then looked at me. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I felt some of the nausea I had lived with for most of my life begin to lift.
TRUTH: I was well into my forties and driving with my mother one afternoon. She was chattering on and I was tuning her out. Suddenly I heard her saying, “…and so, I am really sorry, honey. I don’t know if I can ever make it up to you.”
“Wait…what?” I was embarrassed not to have been listening when she was being candid: “What are you talking about?” I noticed that her hands were clutching the steering wheel so hard that her knuckles had turned white.
“I’m talking about Russell,” she said, still staring ahead, her eyes on the road. “I never should’ve allowed him to babysit for you. I should’ve taken you for therapy, or gone for therapy myself to be able to help you better.” Now she had my full attention. “No one ever talked about those kinds of things back then. And God knows that I didn’t know how to cope. I’m sorry.” I had prayed for this moment my whole life, and here it was. Sort of. Did she really just say what I think she said? The car slowed as it approached the intersection. She stopped at the red light, and looked at me. Her eyes were moist, and she lowered her arm to the seat. I wanted to reach out and touch her hand, but I couldn’t just yet.
TRUTH: After that day in the hotel lobby, I never spoke to Russell again.
TRUTH: Neil and I have remained close friends. But we never once spoke of those games.
TRUTH: My cousin Lizzie essentially stopped speaking to me from around the time when I no longer had to go over to their house for babysitting. I always wondered if perhaps the games had gotten worse for her when I was not there. I never asked.
Galia Peled is a nurse-midwife and mother of six now grown children (and five grandchildren -!-). She was born and raised in Detroit, and has lived in Jerusalem, Israel for the past nearly forty years. She has a book out on Breastfeeding (in Hebrew), and has been published in the Israel Midwive’s Journal, Mothering Magazine, and recently, Purple Clover.