CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.
Note: most names have been changed.
By Noreen Austin
Gere’ December 1993
My sister Gere’(Jer-ray) has been missing from her North Hollywood, California group home for several days. Raoul, her counselor, a stocky man, coiled with a black belt in martial arts, has the skills to survive in this socioeconomic oppressed part of town. He cares for the mentally disabled. His home is a place of refuge in hopelessness. But he can’t keep Gere’ safe after all, and he files a missing person’s report with Los Angeles County.
My father calls me in my Northern California home from his apartment in Southern California and explains, “She was badly beaten.” The police had interviewed Gere’. They told Raoul they had never seen anyone so severely beaten and still able to walk.
“She wasn’t taken to the hospital?” I ask.
“She bolted before the ambulance got there.” My father says.
Gere’ is 29-years old, has Tuberous Sclerosis, a gene mutation that causes tiny benign tuber-like tumors to grow onto the ends of the synapses in her brain. Autism, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, anger and defiance behavioral problems, ash-leaf shaped skin pigmentations, and seizures are a few of the symptoms of this condition. Some people with TS don’t have seizures. But Gere’s started when she was eighteen months. Each seizure causes brain lesions, which contributes to her cognitive decline. It’s easy for me to understand her confusion. The police are there to arrest bad people. The police are talking to her. It’s when the police leave the room to get some information from Raoul that Gere’ runs.
Years later, in small pieces, I remember this story. I distract myself from the pain by studying such things as personal transformation. I’m intrigued by the Enneagram model for personality types. I wonder who Gere’ would have been if she didn’t have TS. The Enneagram explains that people are born with a genetic disposition, and as a means of survival, they learn to adapt their basic nature to their environment. I wonder if this system encompasses damage deep within the brain.
As an organizational method, the Enneagram is a circle with numbers one through nine that interconnect. A One is no better than a Nine. Each number has three levels in the continuum of development: Healthy, Average, and Unhealthy. It’s all about understanding what motivates people to do the things they do. A person’s basic nature is a starting number, and he or she progresses around the circle to different numbers based on healthy integration or unhealthy disintegration.
My Enneagram type is a Two: The Helper. My survival depends on the love and approval of significant people in my life. For reasons, only known to the microscopic world of genetics, I don’t have the gene mutation that causes Tuberous Sclerosis. Gere’ and I, four years apart, had some similarities our personalities. Perhaps she was a Two as well.
In any case, the slightest deviation in the brain intrigues me. I recall how Gere’ never understood math. She couldn’t even count to a hundred. Maybe there were tubers deep in her parietal lobe, in the intraparietal sulcus, where electrical activity along the nerve cells comes alive with equations and gets short circuited by rice-shaped tubers. But she remembered names very well. Her temporal lobe wasn’t as affected, anything’s possible.
Gere’ December 1993
She has the operator look up my number.
“Collect call from Gere’. Do you accept the charges?”
It’s a Saturday afternoon. My toddler is learning how to use the word, “No” to his full advantage.
“Yes!” I say to the operator.
“Where are you?” I ask, relieved to hear my sister’s voice.
“I don’t know.”
I have a new portable phone. It’s in a vinyl black bag, and I can take it with me everywhere. It’s clunky, the air time is pricey, but I call my father while keeping Gere’ on my cordless house phone.
“Whatever you do,” my dad says in my other ear, “keep her on the line.”
So, for the next eight hours, I keep her voice in my ear.
Connection. My personality type thrives when I feel I have pleased my loved ones. This Enneagram model helps me understand my readiness to tune so deeply into the needs of others. Every day the Enneagram website, sends me a “Thought for the Day.” Today it reads: “It is vitally important for you to develop good boundaries. Boundaries allow you to be concerned for others without becoming over involved in other’s lives” (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 145). But, how to establish boundaries in my family, and still have them love me?
Gere’ December 1993
I talk to Gere’ on my house phone. It’s white, rectangular, and fully charged. I ask prying questions. She’s exhausted, but I push harder.
“I can’t marry Joe,” she says. “Mom said because we’re retarded.”
This is no surprise. My mother had confided this to me after Gere’ and Joe had visited some time ago. The two of them stayed in my home, and my mother visited making snide remarks to me that Joe and Gere’s relationship was ridiculous. I disagreed.
It’s a bad idea to disagree with our mother, but it’s an even worse idea to agree with her.
I had been naïve to think my mother wasn’t planting negative thoughts in Gere’s mind regarding Joe since the visit. My mother feels threatened when she sees other people in relationships, as she doesn’t understand her role any longer.
“She borned me this way,” Gere’ says referring to her genetic disorder.
The phone receiver burns my ear. I feel the pull of my own life. My son wants lunch.
“I put on sexy clothes.”
“A tube top, and short shorts. Mom hates sexy stuff.”
“Yeah, she does.”
Gere’ has the body shape of our mother, medium to short in stature, wide hips and thighs, heavy breasted. A tube top, and short shorts on either of them can hit the radar of either fashionistas or demons in the night. My stomach lurches. In the background of her call, I hear voices. She’s in a restaurant. Someone wants to use the pay phone.
“No!” I shout.
An Enneagram Type Two must learn to say no, which is a life-long challenge. If I say no, I feel guilty. If I have needs, I feel selfish. I need to please. I discover that Mother Teresa was a Two. So was Mr. Rogers. When I watched Mr. Rogers as a child, I would feel this yearning for warmth, and compassion. I had to turn the channel when Mr. Rogers changed his shoes. Too overwhelmed. And then I learn Monica Lewinsky is a Two. Not being able to say no while needing to please someone can cause resonating problems.
Gere’ December 1993
Gere’ explains—a gang of men in her North Hollywood neighborhood told her to get into the back of a pick-up truck.
I grip the phone.
She says, she felt sexy. Then they made her turn over onto her abdomen.
“It hurt so bad.”
I clutch my own abdomen and bend over making sure I keep the phone pressed to my ear.
“I told them no. Why wouldn’t they stop?”
I look up to see my son standing in front of me. He wears a long-sleeved shirt over his puffydiapers. His blond hair has a tuft of baby curls in the back. Around his mouth is evidence of peanut butter his father fed him. He smiles. How do I smile back at this moment? My heart is broken. But I reach out for a hug. He giggles, shakes his head no, and runs away. The plastic of his Pampers rustling with his footsteps.
Gere’ continues, “They threw me out of the truck. And their girlfriends were mad.”
These women pummeled Gere’, blackened her eyes, punched her in the head, and back, kicked her repeatedly.
“Their boyfriends loved me,” she said.
Gere’, after being beaten up by women who were jealous that their boyfriends raped a cognitively impaired girl, stood up, and returned to her group home. Raoul, I’m sure tight fisted, knew to stay inside his house, and call the police.
“The police were mad at me,” Gere’ whispered.
I try to swallow my rage. Does my mother know her efforts to break up Gere’ and Joe has further destroyed her own daughter? I know my mother would never admit to it. Just as the countless times during my teen years, my mother would confide in me the ways she had tried to induce a spontaneous miscarriage of Gere’.
She would stand on the table and jump off, land hard attempting to knock the baby loose. My mother didn’t want another child. In the 1960’s, my mother asked her Catholic doctor to terminate the pregnancy. But abortion would not become legal until Roe vs. Wade in 1973. But my mother denied her confessions to me. Completely denied. So, in this present fiasco, I know she won’t take any responsibility for her role in it.
Yet, Gere’ is alive. My rage at my mother, rapists, and their ignorant girlfriends is uncontainable. But I must keep it suppressed. I have a toddler running around. I have a sister and a father who need my help.
An Enneagram says: “What would happen if you stopped striving to be loved and appreciated today? Would your world fall apart?”
Can I pinpoint the day I stopped striving to please my mother? I can estimate the beginning of the end for any hope of a healthy relationship with her. I wonder if there is a freedom in not striving. Yes there is, and no there isn’t.
Gere’ December 1993
Gere’ asks someone the name of the restaurant and the town. In the background, a man says, “You don’t know what town this is?” Turns out, she’s not in Los Angeles County any longer. She had traveled about three hours north east, and landed in some desolate, desert town.
The man in the background has more to say, “You smell! You chase away the customers. Go!”
She whispers, “I’m cold.”
“What are you wearing?”
“A coat someone gave me.”
“My dress got stoled.”
“Who took it?”
“A man in a motel. I had to pay him money.”
“How it works,” I say, “Is the man pays you money…” Why am I giving my sister instructions on how to be a prostitute? How did she even manage it?
“He stoled my dress.”
Why am I so condescending? My sister has Tuberous Sclerosis, and can’t survive on her own in this world. She needs a place of refuge. “I’m glad you have a coat.”
“Thank you,” she says. “I don’t feel good.”
I’m desperate to get her to a doctor.
“Who gave you a dress and coat?” I ask.
“After I left Raoul’s, these nice people gave me a ride.”
“Christians. They gave me a dress, this coat, and twenty-dollars. They dropped me off.”
I wonder why these Christian people didn’t take a beaten up, cognitively impaired girl to the Emergency Room.
While I have Gere’ on my house phone, my father speaks to me from my vinyl bag phone. He says he’ll drive the two hours to the town where Gere’ is on a payphone in one of the restaurants. He tells me to keep her on the line, try to get the name of the restaurant, and he will pay my phone bills. I skip my dinner. Luckily, my son and his father manage by themselves.
I hear my son from the other room, “Mama?”
I feel worse with each charged minute.
An Enneagram says: “Learn to listen to your body—especially around matters having to do with rest. Give yourself the kind of care you would insist on for someone you love (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 144).” For many years, I didn’t feel worthy of rest, or food. So, I didn’t rest enough and I didn’t eat enough. The important thing was to make everyone else thrive. I wanted to make up for all the love lost in my life.
I want to go back in time when Gere’ and I could sit side by side, and talk to Mr. Rogers. I imagine my arm around Gere’s shoulders as we listen to this fellow Type Two say to us: “… We human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.”
Gere’ December 1993
After a process of elimination, my father finds the restaurant. I hear him speaking to the proprietor. I hang up both phones relieved and exhausted.
It’s the next day, a Sunday. Much has happened in the dark hours of the night. My dad had rescued his youngest daughter, and after a visit to an Emergency Room, he delivered her to a new group home run by a kind, tender woman. My dad tells me this placement will be a disaster. His prediction: a week. Gere’s anger and defiance are too intense. Tuberous Sclerosis is insidious.
In my town, I attend a church service where preschool aged kids are performing. I find my favorite aunt and uncle, and slide in next to them needing their warmth. But they aren’t welcoming, instead, they hold their bodies rigid, they look forward, their lips tight, their eyes cold.
“My dad and I saved Gere’ yesterday,” I lean in towards my uncle.
My aunt turns towards me, and corrects me. “Your poor mother. She spent hours on the phone with that girl. If it wasn’t for your mother, Gere’ wouldn’t be with us.”
How does my mother convince people her lies are truth? I become overwhelmed with feelings of injustice, betrayal, rage, and the realization that my mother relentlessly destroys relationships. My mother shamed Gere’ into believing two cognitively impaired people can’t be happy together. So, Gere’ left Joe behind, and walked the sidewalks in her dangerous neighborhood searching for something to make her feel better.
And now, my mother must discredit me because I know her role in Gere’s recent trauma. My stomach aches. The light green carpet in the domed church, with the matching light green pews, the preschool-aged children singing Christmas songs on the stage seem far away, as if I’m in the aisle watching a movie of a family watching young ones perform. When the show is over, I fake a smile, and clap along. Precious children.
After the performance, I try to walk side by side with my aunt and uncle. But they rush ahead. In the parking lot, I see my mother in the distance. She wears a white sweater over a blue-flowered blouse and black slacks. I see families hugging their preschoolers. I find my car through my teary vision.
The house phone sits in its charger. The portable phone is zipped up in its black bag. I finger the vinyl case. It’s cold, and smooth. I need to cry, to rage, to feel a sense of justice. My son, who holds his Thomas the Tank Engine train, wants juice. I swallow my pain. While closing the door to the den, I decide I hate telephones. But, secretly, I hope my aunt and uncle will call despite my mother’s lies.
I muster up joy towards my son. But, the phones remain silent into the evening.
Noreen Austin earned her MFA in 2003 through Antioch College, Los Angeles. She raised her son in the small town of Chico in Northern California. As soon as her son was on his own, Noreen packed her belongings in storage, moved across the country and retrained in a new career. After two years, she became a licensed echocardiographer, and now works in an acute care hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.