I speak to know I’m not alone
If you can’t even trust your own family to raise you in safety, how can you believe in anything? How do you live your life?
This story contains suicidal ideations and graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.
I think I’m about 13. It’s probably summer, because the night is warm. The street is empty, the streetcars stopped running. I look down, to the sidewalk washed in orange light, and I get dizzy. My long, skinny legs are dangling over the windowsill I’m sitting on. I bend over just slightly, to get a better look. To measure the distance. I have a pretty good shot from the fifth floor, but I don’t know. What if I’ll only break a few bones?
I look up and it’s dark – no stars, no moon. I’m not above thinking up some bad metaphors about the darkness of life. A couple of years ago, that movie with Kirsten Dunst came out, The Virgin Suicides. In it, a doctor asks a girl what reason she could possibly have to want to kill herself at age 13. “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl,” she replies and I think it’s the dopest line in history. It’s also the saddest, because I get it and it scares me. I don’t necessarily want to die, but I want everything to stop.
Somehow, this night – well, it wasn’t just one night –, sitting on the windowsill and looking at my empty street in Bucharest, not having to pretend I’m fine, not having my drunk father collapse in my bed, but in his, not having him look for my body under the sheets or under my clothes, is the only time I can actually breathe.
But I can also stop breathing. It’s the only choice I have left.
I don’t want the night to end. For years, I’ll want the nights never to end. I’ll want to not fall asleep, not feel tired, stay alert, enjoy freedom, enjoy the quiet.
Towards daybreak, I slide from the windowsill to the wooden desk next to it. My “normal girl” diary sits in its drawer. That’s where I write about arguments with friends, teachers, boys I like, the girl who sent me a Valentine’s Day card with little hearts on it. Right now, though, I’m into a dark-haired boy from school, a year older, who wears Harry Potter glasses – as fashion dictates in 2001 – and plays soccer during recess. In high school, he’ll join a teenage pop band and score a minor hit on the national music scene. I like watching him play soccer while all the girls are pining over his blond best friend who’s a lot more commercial. I like sitting on the tall electric panel box next to the soccer field, in jeans that squeeze my hips and widen like a bucket towards my ankles, with the same skinny legs dangling in the air, a face full of pimples and bangs that evaporate my self-esteem. I look at him like he’s not so far away from my life. Like something could actually happen. Then, I write in my diary, as if I’m one of my friends – the girls with normal lives and normal parents.
Some nights, when I’m not doing a balancing act on the windowsill thinking of how I could rest down there, I crawl under my blanket with the yellow walkman my mom brought me from abroad and I listen to this radio show with Vlad Craioveanu on PRO FM. People call him and he listens to their problems, he asks questions, gives them advice. Not like a pseudo-doctor from TV, like Mircea Radu, but like a pal that you chat with at school, behind the gym. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a show like this. I found it by accident one night while I was rushing through the frequencies.
It helps and it’s surprising. I didn’t know people could confide like that in someone. I think about what it would be like to call the show, to talk about the things I’m going through. Not because I’m hoping for a savior, just to talk.
So somebody else would know too.
It wasn’t always terrible. I had a fairly happy childhood.
I was born in Bucharest in 1988. My parents had moved there after getting married, but I grew up in their hometown, Suceava, in north-eastern Romania, with my maternal grandparents, until I was seven. Life was simple and whimsical there: big house, a yard and a garden.
I always saw my parents as a disruptive duo that shook my fairytale life in Suceava to its core. I would talk to them on the phone, and I’d spend my vacations in Bucharest with them, but I didn’t like it. My dad was going through one of his long, violent and alcoholic phases, which he’d take out on me exclusively. One minute he loved me more than life itself, the other he’d strike me with his belt, always out of little nothings. I’d either not eat enough or not what he wanted me to, or not stick to his schedule, or I’d break a toy or step in a puddle on the street.
One time, when I was visiting while on vacation, he sliced some bread for lunch and, while he was still finishing things up in the kitchen, I started eating and chose a slice from the middle of the bread stack, because it was softer. When I told him I had finished eating, he accused me of lying because the first slice in the stack, a little drier, was still there. I hadn’t started with it. So he dragged me to my room by my arm, pulled off my pants and underwear and threw me on the bed, on my stomach. I heard him take off his belt and fold it in two. That way he handled it with more precision. It was a thick, brown leather belt, a bit aged and worn on the sides, that left its imprint on my mind and, several times, on my skin. A few seconds later, the strikes began. I cried and screamed, but it was just us at home. My mother was at the office. I don’t remember what I was saying. Probably begging him to stop and insisting I hadn’t lied, but that only made him angrier.
I couldn’t sit in a chair for a couple of days. But back then, I didn’t keep quiet and he hadn’t yet learned to hide his actions so well. I always told my grandparents about the beatings, and they defended me. I never relied on my mother, not even then.
My grandparents were shocked. “I sent the child to you in Bucharest so you could strike her with a belt?” my grandmother would ask my father. And when she’d hear the justifications, she would almost always start crying. “How can he hit a six year-old like that?” my grandmother asked rhetorically, sometimes to me, other times while talking to my grandfather in the kitchen. „Plus, the child is well-behaved.”
I don’t remember how my father justified things, and many of the adult discussions took place without me. But I’ll never forget his main comeback.
“The child needs to be on a short leash.”
So, the child had a potential for trouble.
When I think of the time and place I grew up in, ‘90s Romania, I’m not necessarily shocked by what happened to me, but by how mundane it all seemed. Beaten women, beaten children, parents with vices. Few friends of mine never got hit when they were being naughty or when their parents had a bad day. “Family, in itself, is violent,” wrote Elena Ferrante, one of my favorite authors. “Everything built on blood ties is like that, meaning unchosen ties, ties that impose a responsibility towards another even though there was never a moment when we decided to take it upon ourselves.”
And I suppose it was hard for my parents and so many like them – who had children when they were a little over 20, just as Communism crumbled and the world they were trained to live in collapsed – to handle families, relationships and emotions.
My grandmother cared deeply for her son-in-law, and she tried to reason with him, to understand why he acted that way, to help him. He loved her too. He saw her as the mother he’d lost years back, when he was still in college. “Grandma Virginia”, I was told, had been a mighty woman who was extremely close to my father. She died from untreated pneumonia. One of my dad’s biggest regrets was that his mother never got a chance to see him married, with a daughter, in his family home. So “mother Malina” took her place, and my father was also a bit scared of her volatile temperament. My grandmother had that effect on people.
My mother rarely got involved. I don’t remember her too much from my early childhood, before starting primary school. I simply wouldn’t be able to point out situations when she was present. She was always at work or tired after work. Back then, I didn’t really ask myself why or what her role was in our family; it was just the way things were. Eventually, the time came for me to go to school and my parents decided to bring me to Bucharest to live with them. But first, my grandparents made my father promise he’d stop hitting me.
I left Suceava kicking and screaming. My parents flew me to Bucharest because they couldn’t bear the thought of me crying during the seven-hour drive. Still I cried, I fought, I opposed. I don’t know how my parents thought the best way to take me was by force, during a nervous breakdown, but that was that. Back then, no one thought about children’s emotions too much. And if something cemented my distrust towards my parents (but also a deep feeling of abandonment by my grandparents), it was that move. A move I was convinced my father had orchestrated.
Happiness ended that day.
In Bucharest, I was able to fit in quickly at school and I made some friends, but I hated it at home. I tried to negotiate with my grandparents to move back to Suceava. I promised I would be good and do my own homework, that I wouldn’t bother them. But they kept saying it was “normal” to live with my parents, that it would all be fine.
When you’re seven, though, you have no standards beyond what you’ve experienced. When you tell a child they have to do something because it’s “normal”, they probably won’t understand. To me, my life in Suceava was normal, and my parents destroyed that. First, with my father’s violence, and second, by dragging me to Bucharest and changing my parental figures. It took me two decades to understand that my sense of normal at age seven could never be compatible with an adult’s sense of normal. I realized, after a lot of therapy, that I suffered my first depression then, even though no one noticed.
There were days when I’d get home from school and wait in terror for my father to return from work, although he really did stop hitting me. But the fear never left me. He always came home before my mother, at around 4:30PM. I’d wait, looking out the window at the busy boulevard below, and after an early childhood spent in a big yard, I felt like I was in prison. Sadness filled me as I looked at the tall blocks of flats, the grey cement, the no. 21 tram that kept me up at night with its metallic rumble, the cars and the dust.
I couldn’t get used to the thought that this was it, this was going to be my life from now on – in an apartment, in an eight-floor building that I can’t leave whenever I want, where I can’t play with cats and dogs and hens and my grandfather’s pigeons. I visited Suceava regularly and I spent every vacation there, including the summer months, until I turned 18. At the end of those vacations, years after moving to Bucharest, I would collapse into the same feelings of sadness and loneliness as before, the same feeling that everything good is temporary, that no one sees me. That, as long as I’m still alive, functioning, no one’s going to bother asking me if I’m really alright.
Once I started school, things with my parents became cordial. We were like cautious diplomats in the middle of a fragile peace. I was afraid of my father and I’d flinch at any sudden move. My grandmother noticed this when she was around and asked me if he was still hitting me, if he yelled at me. He didn’t need to, after the previous years when I had been a guest in Bucharest. The body remembered.
My mother worked at the Ministry of Agriculture at that time, creating the first rural development programs funded by the European Union. We got along fine, but she seemed from another universe. She used to bring me to her office and show me off to her friends and colleagues. They were all joyful, warm; some had kids my age. They always gave me paper and colored crayons to occupy my time, they cleared desks for me, and I enjoyed sitting there with my utensils, content, listening to their discussions and jokes. That’s what I imagined happy, normal adults looked like.
At home, my mother was absent, listless. My grandmother criticized her for “sleeping all the time”, for not investing energy in her marriage, in her family. My parents even had separate bedrooms. I never understood why, but I supposed it was my mother’s decision.
She had the master bedroom, the last room in the house, with a king-sized bed and a floral headrest. My dad slept in the living room, on a pull out sofa bed, while I got his former bachelor bedroom, where nothing had changed except the posters on the door. In his youth, he had Kiss, Deep Purple and Iron Maiden. I had changed them to Spice Girls, Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. But the Kiss poster stayed. He wasn’t willing to give it up.
During my first years in school, his life project was being an involved father. He was the school’s contact – he went to parent-teacher meetings, he knew all my grades and my favorite classes.
He was the first one to notice I had a gift for storytelling, because I’d tell him what had happened in our favorite TV shows when he missed an episode. He was surprised by how many details I could convey. He spoke to me about history, literature, politics. He wanted me to know things and expand my thinking, to read, to have an idea of the world I lived in. He always gave me books to read.
We’d talk until midnight in the kitchen, while he smoked a full pack of red L&Ms. One of his favorite stories was how, at the Revolution in 1989, he went to protest with his father’s brother, Titus, and they were both almost killed in the violence that bloodied central Bucharest. “A bullet shot by Titus’s ear just like this,” he told me running his palm close to his ear. They weren’t injured, but my father did something that cemented his self-image for eternity: “I distributed the first copy of Libertatea (freedom). Right there, in the crowd”. The newspaper became a symbol of the Revolution and is now one of the highest selling in the country.
I never found out if that’s how things actually happened, but I believed him then. The first years of our relationship had been stained by violence, but over time I started lowering my defenses, even admiring him. After all, he was the parent who was there, with all his flaws. And, oh, how people would fawn over us at parties and family gatherings. “How he cares for this child!”, sighed even my grandmother sometimes.
On my father’s side of the family, we were only close to Titus and his wife, Matilda. They were a little older than my grandparents in Suceava. I’d only see my paternal grandfather, who also lived in Bucharest, about once a year. He had been the big-shot leader of a local institution in Suceava and my maternal grandparents called him “an arrogant securist” (an informer for the Communist secret police, the Securitate). He never did anything to prove otherwise. After the death of his wife, he remarried the gynecologist who brought me into the world – a very distasteful move, according to my grandmother. There were always tensions between my maternal grandparents and my paternal grandfather and his new wife. It all blew up during an argument – constantly revisited by my grandmother – when the gynecologist called her “a filthy Moldovan”. The ties between the two families were severed for good. And my father stuck by my maternal grandparents.
In a way, Titus and Matilda were more like his parents. They were upper middle class, with old Bucharest’s sophistication and manners, just a little bit snobby. He used to be a director at the International Religions Bank, she came from a good Jewish family, marked by her people’s losses and sufferings. I’ve only ever known Matilda as suffering from Parkinson’s, but she still threw great Christmas parties and took me to the movies every now and then.
They had a big apartment downtown in Unirii (Union) Square, filled with old, beautiful furniture. Their bedroom had a dark wooden vanity with many artistically sculpted drawers and perfume bottles of unknown labels or with none at all. Matilda had her perfumes custom made and, sometimes, she’d let me explore them. But most of all I loved the food she and Sara, her sister, cooked: a green onion, egg and potato salad, or a sort of deep-fried, multi-vegetable hash browns they usually made for Hanukah.
Titus and Matilda adored my father. They even left him their apartment after they died, a few years ago. I found out from acquaintances, because I haven’t spoken to my father in 16 years, since my parents divorced. I haven’t seen Titus and Matilda since either. They were loyal to him until their last breaths.
My father always liked beer. Dark, blonde, it didn’t matter. He always ended the day downing a few cans and smoking like a chimney, usually in a tank top and underwear. The number of beers grew consistently over the years: from two, to five, to 20 during the worst of times. I’m not estimating, it’s not a hyperbole, I used to count the cans in the trash. I never knew why he did that or how his addiction started. A lot of sensitive topics were off limits in our home. I know my mother, who never touched alcohol, was disgusted, but I could only sense it from a look or a sarcastic one-liner, never from an actual conversation.
“Busy night?” she’d ask him when he woke up with a hangover. “At least take the trash out.”
Most times, he wasn’t a violent drunk. At least not after the big talk with my grandparents that preceded my move to Bucharest. He was annoying, though. He’d organize thematic evenings and make me listen a whole album from his favorite bands: Smokie, Pink Floyd, The Beatles.
“You have to learn to appreciate good music, or else you’ll develop bad taste,” he told me walking around my room, beer in hand, while I was sitting on the side of my bed, chronically bored. He’d explain the idea behind the album, interpret the lyrics, analyze the conflicts between band members. To say he was passionate about music would be a gross understatement. It was his whole life, at least until graduating from university. He told me he hung out with Romanian rock stars from the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Iris, Cargo, Holograf, Compact. In fact, he took me to Vama Veche, a landmark hippie village at the seaside, when I was nine and gave me a gin&tonic so I’d learn to drink responsibly and not get shitfaced at my first party. Nowadays, I can barely touch beer or gin.
He was in a rock band when he was young too, but it didn’t last. Sometimes, after the 15th beer, he’d take his guitar from my room and sing something sad, usually from Cargo. He tried to teach me to play guitar, but I liked singing vocals more. He said I had a nice voice, that I inherited his talent.
I don’t know how real the stories about his young self were, because I learned over time that my father could tell himself anything to justify his life, but I always sensed a sadness dripped in regret about a much more exciting youth. When nostalgia overflowed, he used to show me a picture of his from university, from a trip to the seaside with his friends. He was skinny, wearing a cowboy hat and boots with nothing but his bathing suit on, plus a gun belt with no gun. He had hair back then. In the meantime, he lost most of his blond curls and gained a couple of dozen pounds, which at over six feet made him imposing, not necessarily fat, except for his beer belly.
There was no doubt that he thought his best years were behind him – when he had fun with the guys at the seaside, when music was his future, when his mother was alive. He ended up exactly what a young man with his background would have despised: a dusty public servant, who went to work in a suit, who got a job because of his father’s connections, who had a wife and kid, and lived in an apartment he didn’t even own. His father owned it. He ended up like his father.
In middle school, things became stranger. He said he’d kill me if he ever caught me smoking or drinking or hanging out with some “dick face”, but he was the one offering me drinks every now and then. A little beer, a sip of gin or vodka. Once, when my parents and I were on vacation at the seaside and my mother went to the hotel to nap after lunch, my father took me to a beach bar and bought a large pint of dark beer, that he kept pushing under my nose. I think he took a picture of me holding the beer, he thought it was funny. I got wasted, he almost had to carry me to the hotel, where I immediately went to sleep. I was about 11.
“Congratulations on your first drunken spree,” he laughed when I woke up.
He became more tactile too, especially around sixth grade. I remember he was a bit too impressed and interested when I first got my period, when my body started changing – minimally, because I was a skinny tall girl who was over 5`7„ at age 12. But I always had an ass and hips, and he made it clear that he noticed. My figure preoccupied him. Around that time, at his advice, I went on my first diet – the famous grapefruit diet – and he’d always monitor me. He was obsessed with controlling my body. “You have to watch yourself, otherwise you’ll end up like your mother, like a whale,” he told me all worried. “And she was skinny too when I married her.”
He taught me how to give myself a French manicure, like all the “cool chicks”. He encouraged my crushes on certain actors, musicians or sports people, but they generally had to receive his stamp of approval and he seemed embarrassingly content whenever we agreed. He would also ask me about actresses I thought were sexy – his favorite was Lucy Lawless from Xena: The Warrior Princess and he’d make me practice her battle scream.
The drunken evenings turned into nights. The barriers that separated the addiction from his relationship to me started to dissolve. He would come into my room after bedtime and go to smoke on my balcony, even though he could have used the kitchen. An hour or two would pass until he retreated, with an air of defeat. His figure in the night, resting his elbows on the balcony railing, one bended knee, staring into the darkness, stayed with me for a long time. Sometimes, when I go to the window at night for a smoke, heavy with my thoughts, I need to shake it off and remind myself that it’s not the same, that I didn’t end up like him.
For reasons that escaped my grasp at the time, his presence in my space caused me fear and insomnia. I would pretend to be asleep and prayed he wouldn’t realize I was awake.
One day, I can’t remember if I was 12 or 13, he wanted to talk. I only remember this: I think it was the weekend, I think my mother was away on business, and I was taking an afternoon nap in her bed. My father woke me up, got into bed next to me and asked me to turn around so I wouldn’t face him.
“I want to tell you something, but I don’t want you to look me in the eyes,” he said.
I remember my blood froze in my veins and my heart started racing. I did what he asked, calmly, though my brain was already searching for a way out. I had no idea what he was about to say, but I knew it was bad if he didn’t want me to look him in the eyes – who even says that? It sounded like a line from a bad movie. He said something about a physical attraction towards me. That he knew it was wrong so he went to the psychiatric hospital to figure out what was wrong with him. He said a doctor there told him he should either commit to 10 days of in-hospital treatment, or the two of us could “come to an agreement”.
He presented the first option in an apocalyptic tone. The second was much more reasonable and wouldn’t have ruined his life. His.
I didn’t understand what type of agreement he was talking about, so he explained. We could choose a day of the week during which, for a certain amount of time, “let’s say 10-20 minutes”, I allowed him to touch me as he wanted, to quench the thirst that would soon diminish.
The rest of the time he’d leave me alone.
I wasn’t familiar with the expression back then, but my brain exploded. I wondered if I was having a nightmare. I wondered if it was a bad joke, a sort of test. I wondered if he was going to rape me then and there. I wondered why my mother wasn’t home. I wondered why this was happening to me. In this family. Because what was happening seemed like a script from the worst conceivable depravation, not the story of a “good family”, like I had been programmed to view my parents. I wondered how to refuse him without causing a violent outburst. I couldn’t imagine the story about the doctor had been a sick manipulation. I believed him. Why wouldn’t have I believed him?
Still, somehow, I managed to do it. I said “no”.
That he didn’t want to end up satisfying his needs with someone else, thus cheating on my mother. That it would be less of an offence with me, that if I didn’t “help” him, I would be contributing to the destruction of our family, that he was going to end up in a mental hospital. It was too much to take in all at once. He’d had time to sharpen his arguments. Persistent, but affable, he asked me to think about it for a few days.
I can’t remember how many days, or what I thought about during that breather. Trauma erases part of your memories. I think I was just hoping that he would get over it, that he wouldn’t act. That my safety would matter more. Surely he would find another way. I definitely wasn’t thinking of telling anybody at that point. My father was suffering and had trusted me with a secret. He could have assaulted me right away, but didn’t. He wanted to talk, like normal people, to involve me in this decision. He risked ending up in a mental institution or having his family destroyed, which would’ve made me an extremely selfish girl.
And I was raised to be a good girl.
Our bodies are a strange conglomerate of areas and demarcations. An elderly neighbor told me, around the age of six, to be open and receive people’s affection, but never let anyone except a romantic partner kiss me on the mouth or on my forehead. “Some gestures are intimate,” she’d say. But if you kiss someone on the cheek, it’s not a big deal. Neither if someone touches your shoulder. It may be a little uncomfortable if you’re not close, but it’s not the supreme aggression. A few inches below the collar bone or the belly button, everything changes: the relationships between people, the relationship to yourself and desirability, to sex, trust, opportunities for happiness.
Those inches separated, in my case, a healthy life from a tortured one.
I came home from school, ate and sat at my desk to do homework. I think I was in seventh grade. A few days had passed since my father’s proposal. I tried not to think about it, but failed. He walked into my room and sat behind me, with his hands on the chair’s backrest, asking me how my day was. I didn’t get a chance to tell him how the Physics teacher yelled at me for not knowing the difference between “fluid” and “viscous”, because I felt his hands gliding down my shoulders, under my blouse, searching for my non-existent breasts. I froze for a few seconds, then I felt the nausea and taste of vomit on the roof of my mouth, so I pulled away and removed his hand.
I was furious he had done that and I didn’t try to hide my disgust. “Come on, big deal, what did I do? Why are you twitching like that?” he asked me defensively. “I just wanted to ask if you thought about it some more, if you have an answer. I guess the answer is «no», right? You don’t care. What, am I that disgusting?”
What’s happening? How did I end up being the bad guy? How can he say I don’t care?
All these questions were making my head spin, while he kept talking bombastically. I didn’t have time to collect my thoughts. I always felt that I was weak in conflicts, that I wasn’t convincing, perhaps precisely because of interactions like this with my father. Plus, being an introvert, when people throw an endless stream of words at me and want immediate responses, I retreat inside myself and need to set everything to slow motion. My father knew this about me. I realized I never really had a choice. It was just an amount of time during which he wanted to see if I was going to give in or if he’d have to make me give in.
I stopped the discussion and, in the days that followed, I tried to evaluate the situation as well as I could for a girl my age: my father was always home, I spent more time with him than with my mother; he’s a mountain of a man, alcoholic and violent, but cunning enough to seem charming and respectable; no one will believe me if I talk. Or they’ll say it was my fault, especially since I didn’t talk from the very beginning. It’s been almost a week and I didn’t tell a soul, I’m already part-accomplice. There’s going to be a whole scandal, and police, and my mom crying, and my grandma will go to jail after killing my dad. Everyone’s lives would be thrown out the window. Mine too, of course, but mine didn’t matter as much: it was clear from my father’s approach, from how I didn’t have a choice but to move to Bucharest, from how my grandparents abandoned me.
No one had taught me how trauma changes your perception of self, of self-worth. In the book The Body Keeps the Score, on the effects of psychological trauma on our bodies, the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk writes that one of the biggest obstacles for people traumatized during childhood is confronting the shame they feel about how they behaved in the traumatic moment. “Most of them suffer from agonizing shame about the actions they took to survive and maintain a connection with the person who abused them,” he wrote. “This was particularly true if the abuser was someone close to the child, someone the child depended on, as is so often the case. The result can be confusion about whether one was a victim or a willing participant, which in turn leads to bewilderment about the difference between love and terror; pain and pleasure.”
When I was 13, I wasn’t aware of my shame. I just wanted to be pragmatic, act like a grown-up. I wanted to take care of the situation with minimal bother for others. Besides, what good would it do me if people found out? I would be stuck with the “that girl whose father felt her up” label. I didn’t trust people’s good nature, and I didn’t trust my capacity to stop him.
Defeated, we sat down to talk schedule and conditions.
I felt by doing so I could then have a minimal control over the events and I could maintain my father calm enough to negotiate the end of the abuse later on. Surely I didn’t see things as coherently back then, but that was my basic instinct: don’t infuriate him, he’s dangerous.
What followed is enveloped in the fog of successive traumas and a repulsion that I’ve tried to forget, but never managed to. Initially, it happened on Tuesdays. The conditions: I would lie in bed for 10 minutes – with an alarm set – and I would let him touch, kiss or massage me. I refused being completely naked with all the strength I had. I’d stay in a tank top and underwear. He did the same. But, after a while, it became clear there was no “controlling the situation” or limits. He lifted my top, he slid his hand into my panties, or worse, his mouth. I’d cry, kick and scream, but I was easy to immobilize. From “just Tuesdays” it went on to “whenever I’d pass him by and my mom wasn’t there”. He would casually slap my ass, slide his hand under my shirt. And from “this is temporary” it got to “I want more”.
He wanted me to touch him too, which I never did, although he would grab my hand with such force. I managed, after a few months of terror, to gather some courage, some physical strength, but the situations were more and more chaotic. He would chase me around the house in his underwear, to make me touch his penis. One time, I ran into my mother’s empty bedroom, shut the door before he could get in, and the metallic doorknob hit him in the testicles. He held on to the walls, teared up and crashed in his bed, in the fetal position, with an anguished look on his face, but he didn’t retaliate. He seemed humiliated. I think he only called me “a bitch” or something like that.
Then, for the first time, I laughed in his face. He didn’t seem invincible anymore.
I always wondered if, from the outside, people could have seen the signs and helped me. If only they looked closer.
At the end of seventh grade, for the first time, I didn’t get first prize in school. I got third prize. My grades went down a bit, but not enough to draw any serious concerns. In class, I was polite and did what was asked of me. I started skipping school and I think one of my teachers told me it’s kind of early to be doing that. I had also taken up smoking every now and then, with my classmates, hiding out on the tiny streets next to our school. They would send me – the tallest girl – to the corner shop to buy single cigarettes, disguised with glasses that I couldn’t see anything with, dressed in shirts I borrowed from the boys, to look more mature.
I spent the weekends with kids from my neighborhood, meaning about three girls my age or younger, and a few side characters that popped up sometimes. A boy that I beat up in seventh grade, because he cussed at one of my friends. (It was always easier for me to defend others.) A girl who was younger than us and people said she was a prostitute. A 19 year-old guy who lived with his girlfriend and who had been arrested for dealing drugs (who I liked). A boy our age who was into video games (who liked me). We blended our threads of loneliness out there, on sidewalks between abandoned cars, the children of a country in transition that fucked up many families and left us with no guidance about human relationships but for one teen magazine, Bravo Girl.
The street still meant freedom to me. Freedom within limits, of course: I was allowed to walk from the junction near my building to the next bus stop, close to Obor market. If I broke the rules my father invented, I would get slapped.
Once I became more defiant, he started hitting me again. One weekend, there was a car crash in the nearby junction, and I was outside with my friends. We heard an explosion and ran to see what had happened. A crowd of people gathered around the cars and we couldn’t see much, so we crossed the street to change angles. In just a couple of minutes, my father showed up with clenched fists and flaring nostrils. I didn’t even get a chance to open my mouth, because he slapped me so hard I barely remained vertical. He then grabbed me by the hair and dragged me to our building. In the elevator, he uttered the most feared words on the planet: “you’ll see what you’ll get when we get home”.
See what, I thought? I had seen so much already.
The slap wasn’t even the most painful part. The injustice and humiliation were. Everyone had seen me, the crowd, my friends, my frenemies. I was 13 and I was being smacked in public for crossing a fucking junction one minute away from my building. How absurd?
Everything was just absurd and I was stacking more and more anger.
At home, there weren’t any other consequences because my mother calmed him down – one of the rare interventions –, but his methods of control became more and more creative.
He calculated how long it took me to get home from school, give or take five minutes, to make sure I wasn’t traipsing after classes. I was, as he had always believed, a girl with negative potential and he needed to know where I was every minute of every day.
When I was finally allowed to go to my first summer? camp, in seventh grade, the initially fun experience quickly turned torturous. A few days after I got back, my father started throwing clues that he knew what I’d done.
“You know, the crack in the bedroom window,” he insinuated with a coy smile. My bedroom window had been cracked indeed. “So you drank beer and chocolate liquor,” he dropped the line out of nowhere and my hair immediately stood up. Yes, we drank beer and chocolate liquor.
Eventually, I asked him how he knew. “From your best friend,” he replied sarcastically. But no, he didn’t know from my best friend, although I became paranoid about her for a couple of days. Then I thought maybe he found my diary, where I’d written about the camp. He would constantly look for it and I’d constantly have to change hiding places, because he wasn’t satisfied just abusing my body, he needed to own my thoughts.
Over time, I had gathered about six or seven diaries. I re-read them word for word, trying to realize if that’s where my father got his information, but there was nothing about a crack in the window. Still, I couldn’t be sure and I decided I shouldn’t keep a diary anymore – it wasn’t safe. The next day, while my parents were at work, I threw the diaries in the bath tub and set them on fire. I didn’t think it through – I wasn’t thinking logically anymore – because the fire spread rapidly and it started to darken the white tiles on the wall. The smoke made me cough. So I poured water on the remains of my confessions and threw them down the trash chute. When he got home and smelled something burnt, my father was convinced I had done something bad – how else? –, but he never understood what. He didn’t know what to punish me for.
That was a consolation. The fact that he couldn’t violate every corner of my mind was always a victory and it cemented the conviction that, if I wanted to protect myself from the suffering others could cause me, I needed to build walls. It’s good to build them preemptively. Multiple and thick.
Finally, after he punished me physically when my mother was at the office and psychologically by grounding me for a month, he confessed he didn’t find out about my shenanigans from a friend or from my diary. He said he followed me to the camp and spied on me. “I don’t believe you, there’s no way,” I replied shocked. “What’s the big deal? I left at night, after your mom went to bed, I drove two hours, and got back in the morning. When she woke up, she thought I had already left for work.”
“If I want to find out what you’re doing, I always find a way.”
I was convinced of that for a long time.
I felt stalked, even after he disappeared from my life. Even today I sometimes wonder if he can “find out what I’m doing”. If he Googles me to see where I’m working, what I’m writing. If I’m writing about him or if I’m still obeying our pact of silence.
He didn’t stop there. When he found out I had been skipping school, he told me he hired a private investigator who follows me around all day and reports back to him. “If you see a red car on the street, ask yourself if it’s there for you,” he said like a character in a bad movie. I didn’t really believe the investigator thing – first of all, where would he have gotten the money when all he did was spend it on alcohol? But…
I was always on my toes and I stayed like that most of my life. The body and the brain get used to danger and can’t perceive a reality without it. It’s like you’re always training for a fight, even after the fight is over.
When it came to my father and I, the fight had an important psychological component. We both started daring more – him, sexually and obsessively, while I fought back more. I started sleeping with a knife under my pillow, although I only picked it up once, when I felt like he was going to jump me. I started locking my bedroom door. I threatened him I’d tell Titus and Matilda if he didn’t keep his hands to himself – I thought he’d be most embarrassed towards them. He said he was impressed how well I thought that plan through, how I identified his weakness, and he challenged me to tell them. I didn’t.
Trapped in a situation that I couldn’t even talk about with anyone – except him –, I developed a mechanism to unload my anger: I’d punch the wall in my bathroom with my bare fists. Always in the same spot, because I like consistency. Pretty soon, there was a small crack in the layer of paint. One day, when I was arguing with my father and I had locked myself in the bathroom, I started punching the wall while he was trying to open the door. I can’t remember why we were fighting. I just know he managed to walk in and asked me about the crack in the wall, so I showed him my bruised knuckles.
“Man, you did this?” he asked almost proudly. “Are you training for me?”
He left laughing.
I rarely felt strong during that time. I had a vague feeling that perhaps I wasn’t completely useless since I was able to carry on, wake up in the morning, not slash my wrists or cut him to pieces while he’s sleeping. I had a sense that I could at least control myself. And I had a sort of belief – I have no idea why or how – that if I hang in there and develop patience, I’m going to get out of that situation.
But the idea of outside help seemed like a children’s tale. Researchers Steven Maier and Martin Seligman did a study on traumatized humans and animals back in the ‘70s and they noticed that, more often than not, even when presented with the opportunity of salvation, the subjects did not take advantage of it. I remember that, sometime during the abuse, my grandmother asked me if I was OK. She said she didn’t like how my father was always so tactile with me.
So it wasn’t so unnoticeable. If someone had only looked closer.
But I got scared and I told her she’s crazy, nothing’s going on. “The mere opportunity to escape does not necessarily make traumatized animals, or people, take the road to freedom. (…) many traumatized people simply give up. Rather than risk experimenting with new options they stay stuck in the fear they know,” the research showed. Neuroscientists argued, decades later, that this gridlock is actually the brain’s default setting, and what we learn during our lifetime, more or less effectively, is to ask for and receive help.
I did attempt to run away from home once, around seventh grade. But I came back before my parents returned from work. It was unclear to me how this would be a solution. I wasn’t even in high school, I had no money. Best case scenario, I would’ve ended up in an orphanage where I would’ve experienced worse things. I thought about going to the police, but I was convinced no one would believe me, I didn’t have any evidence. I wasn’t bruised, I hadn’t been raped all the way. My father always said he was going to leave the honor to my first boyfriend, who I’d be allowed to date at age 18 and not a day sooner. Later, when I’d piss him off, he said I should be so grateful he’s being patient until I turn 18 to fuck me.
I don’t suppose he knew where he was going or what the plan was. Sometimes, I felt like he wanted to stop, then I heard him trying the bedroom door at night. He drank more and more. He kept arguing with my mom. He was depressed and said he was going to kill himself because of me. There were two attempts – I was there at one of them. He wanted to swallow a fistful of pills and started whining that if I cared even a little, I should tell him to stop. I said nothing and waited tensely for a few seconds, staring at each other.
I wouldn’t have stopped him for anything in the world.
He was horrified at how “evil” I was, said he was disgusted and never wanted to see me again. My dark teenage fantasy was to tell him, arrogantly: “Wondering how I ended up like this? You created this monster”.
I was in eighth grade when the sexual abuse ended. The reason my father hit the brakes was definitely connected to how dark the dynamic between us became: the attempts to commit suicide, the cracked walls, the stalking threats, the knife I picked up. I don’t remember us having any discussion, but I know for a fact he never apologized. He didn’t think he did anything wrong. It was obvious, though, that some part of all that madness scared him. Maybe he was frightened with himself.
Around the same time, my parents decided to get a divorce. It was just the first attempt. My father got drunk one night and, after my mother went to bed, left her a letter on the washing machine in their bathroom. I never saw the letter, but my mom told me he just wrote that he wanted a divorce because he was seeing a schoolteacher in another city. It seemed like he’d finally found a grown woman. He even left home for a few days, apparently to be with her. My mother was humiliated, while I felt semi-free for the first time in a while, although my father never ended the psychological torture. He blamed me for everything. He said he loved me like a woman, not like a daughter, while I mocked him cruelly. But, at that point, I was made of stone. Nothing he said moved me. Or, at least, that’s what I thought.
To my despair, my parents didn’t get the divorce. My grandparents staged an intervention and they decided to give it another try “for my sake”, because I was about to take the high school admission exams that year. The lies parents burden their children with.
Between the ages of 14 and 15, we had a fragile ceasefire. He’d leave me alone; I’d try to go unnoticed. But I was still afraid, I still felt threatened.
With my friends and classmates, I didn’t even mention the topic of abuse. In middle school, I was enrolled in a bilingual high school with a good reputation, where most of the students came from what we called “good families”. Like mine. They could have noticed a sudden shift from Backstreet Boys to Koᴙn and Marylin Manson. Plus the baggy pants, the baggier the better, in which I intended to disappear – but that was also the fashion back then. I asked my mom to bring me a metal chain for my pants from one of her numerous trips abroad, so I could be even more badass. She brought me one from Italy that looked like a dog leash. It was perfect.
I don’t know if other “victims” or “survivors” experience this, but it became increasingly difficult for me to believe in … anything. I don’t think I could ever believe in any religion on this planet, even though I was raised an Orthodox Christian and the evening prayer was always treasured in my house.
“You don’t need to pray so others can see you, do it for yourself,” my grandmother kept telling me.
When I was little, I followed her advice religiously. We prayed together every night and I loved going to church, even though we didn’t go often. But I liked the rituals and every time I walked into a church I would kiss all the icons I could get to. The whole process took about half an hour, while my grandmother talked to the lady selling candles or other acquaintances.
After I moved to Bucharest with my parents, I noticed none of them prayed before bed. I called my grandmother, alarmed, and told her they were “non-believers”, and I couldn’t share a house with them. Of course, there were many reasons why I felt that. My grandmother then called my mother and firmly asked her to pray with me every night. For a while, she complied. Then, she stopped doing it and I slowly lost the habit too.
Losing my faith was a gradual process, but the sexual abuse definitely had a huge impact. If you can’t even trust your own family, how can you believe anything else, especially something unseen? It was something that shifted me over from “walk by faith, not by sight” to “only believe what you see with your own eyes”. Still, it didn’t happen immediately. I didn’t wake up the next day after the first abuse and think “God is dead”, like Nietzsche.
In ninth grade, after I got into Saint Sava High – the best high school in the country at the time –, before a difficult test or a parent-teacher meeting where my dozens of absences would surface, I still had the habit of taking refuge in a church. I’d go to one close to school with my desk mate and pray everything would be alright. There was something slightly dramatic in this activity, we must have seen people doing that in an independent movie or something. But it also came from an internal consistency we clung to.
That same year, our literature teacher asked us to write an essay titled “Why I do/ don’t believe in Jesus Christ”. I don’t remember why he assigned us the homework, but I liked that it wasn’t a request to glorify Christianity, it was a more philosophical approach. And I remember writing that, even though I have no real reason, I’d rather keep believing because Jesus is a positive role model and I need that.
I left the essay on the desk in my room, went to watch TV, and my father took it and read it. Violating every inch of my privacy continued until the last second of our life together, so it wasn’t surprising. But I was shocked by what happened next. He said he was proud of me. that I had a brilliant mind, that I was very mature and should read the essay in front of my whole class, because it was surely the best. Then he showed it to my mother, so she’d know what a smart daughter she had. Then he told his colleagues at work, family friends, my grandparents and so on. The glorification must have lasted a whole week and I felt incredibly pathetic for how flattered I was, how happy I was that my dad was treating me nicely.
But the miracle was short-lived, like the miracles in the Bible that science explained a couple of millennia later. Eventually I did something wrong – either I got a low grade at school, or I spoke back, or I was more than five minutes late from school and he became paranoid.
One week, I was the perfect child. The next two months, I was a whore.
I was never more of a whore than when I got my first boyfriend at age 15. He was a year older and a couple of inches taller, wore a leather jacket, and had messy dark hair, olive-toned skin and almond-shaped eyes. Our first French kiss was clash of teeth and a badly routed river of saliva. But we were in the beautiful park next to the high school, he’d bought me a Fanta and a rose from an old man with a very persistent sales tactic, and everything was good enough.
I was experiencing what other girls my age were experiencing, what my friends were experiencing, not just what you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But happiness only lasted a week, because I was careless, I spoke on the phone at night, under the covers, and I probably giggled too hard. So my father got a printout of all my calls from the phone company and called the numbers I had frequent contact with. He mostly found my girlfriends – a few of them then told me an unknown number had called them –, but he also found him. I don’t know if they spoke or not, but I know my father realized who he was.
One afternoon, he said “come here” and took me to the clothes hanger in the hallway, where he pulled the printout from his jacket and threw it in my face. My boyfriend’s number was circled in pen every time it showed up on the list. We fought from the hallway to the kitchen. He was yelling and cussing. I was trying to hold my ground, but not end up beaten. When my mother got home, the kitchen had become a battlefield. I was crying, desperate to get out of that absurd situation. His was red in the face, thundering insults.
“What’s wrong with you guys?” she asked, clearly exhausted by the frequency of such scenes at the end of her long working days. “Your daughter’s a whore, that’s what’s wrong!” my dad said hyperventilating. “She needs a boyfriend at age 15?!”
I looked at her with tears in my eyes, saying nothing, hoping she’d help me, throw me a lifeline, anything. Her reaction was so bland I can’t even remember it. I think she tried to take the Aristotelian middle way and calm my father so he wouldn’t kill me. I know for a fact she never once raised her voice at him. I know for a fact she never asked what the hell was wrong with him and why he searched through his daughter’s calls. I know for a fact she didn’t tell him to go to therapy and she didn’t try to protect me. I know for a fact she was fine with me giving them my phone once I got back from school, so they could check my calls.
I followed her to my room in shock, as she’d gone to get my phone. Among other things, I asked her: “Does it seem normal to you that I have zero privacy, that I can’t do anything without him knowing?”.
She replied avoiding eye contact: “You’re a child. Why would you need privacy?”.
I think that’s when I really knew. I knew that I was completely alone. I knew that my mother was of no help to me for reasons beyond the fact that I hadn’t told her about my father. That, even if she had known, I couldn’t tell if she would’ve helped or looked away, same as when she saw how he treated me the evening they took my phone away. And I guess that convinces you, right? Don’t believe in anyone, in anything. Not even in people who seem kind, who tell you they care. You never know when you’re going to make the mistake of needing them and they’ll look away.
If I believed anything after the first half of my life, it was this: that people don’t actually care.
I used to – and still do – look at girls, at women around me and wonder if it happened to them too. I used to look at my classmates, how their dads came to pick them up from school, how they sometimes chaperoned us to the seaside, and wondered if those happy appearances were real. I didn’t know how to relate to what happened to me for a long time, or how to place myself in context. When someone mentions childhood sexual abuse in Romania, I think about horrid media scandals that show us the dark side of our society, but most people see them as foreign to their realities. They’re like anomalies that we watch as passive spectators: the case of the massage salon in 2003, where dozens of underage girls were sexually exploited, or the hundreds of children from Țăndărei who were trafficked in the UK and abandoned by the Romanian justice system that acquitted all, ALL of their abusers.
In recent years, I followed the series published by Libertatea newspaper on the sexual abuse of children in Romania and I was horrified by the case of a 13-year-old girl in Onești who was abused by her father. Displaying incredible bravery, she told the authorities everything, after which a judge – a woman! – found the man guilty, but only gave him a suspended sentence and community service in a center for minors with disabilities. She also sent him back home, because he was the only financial support the family had. The defense attorney, who admitted it was impossible for her to read the prosecutor’s report that described unimaginable abuse scenes, said she believed the court’s decision was fair, because it didn’t “stir” the defendant even more.
If my mother had been unemployed, this probably would’ve happened to me too had I decided to go to court. The Onești case was tried in 2018. I don’t even want to think how the situation would’ve been handled in 2000-2001.
It’s clear that this mentality of “let’s minimize the scandal, let’s get over it” doesn’t just impact social attitudes and discussions, but also how the justice system treats the sexual abuse of minors. When a lawyer tells you her main concern is not to enrage the abuser, how much do you think she prioritizes the safety of a child? When a judge sees those crimes and decides to let the abuser walk free, even sends him back home and back to work next to other children, how serious does she think the crime is?
Another shameful problem of the Romanian justice system, described in a Dela0 investigation by journalist Diana Oncioiu, is that three out of four cases of sexual activity with a minor are tried by the courts as consented acts. We’re talking about 11-12-year-old children in whose cases the issue of “consent” shouldn’t even be raised. Nevertheless, the Criminal Code allows judges to interpret these situations as they see fit, only indicating that, under the age of 15, any sexual activity with a minor is a punishable offense, even if the minor “consented”.
What I fear is hiding underneath this superficiality and ignorance of the authorities is something even darker: we don’t believe children. I doubt that people are passive about the suffering of minors if the suffering seems legitimate, and I don’t believe the justice system wants to let pedophiles walk free. The problem is, deep down, we don’t believe the victims. And this is obvious in the way in which abusers are always given the benefit of the doubt – “he doesn’t have a record”, “he just lost his job” – and victims are criticized for so much: what they wore, what they said, how they reacted to advances. Didn’t they flirt? Why didn’t they report the crime immediately? Why did they get in the car?
Romanian judges believe 11-12-year-old girls are asking for it. We’d rather believe there’s some explanation related to the flawed character of the victim than confront the reality that we have and maintain the type of society where these abuses take place without too many obstacles in the way of abusers.
Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror, a collection of essays on the self-delusions that shape our modern existence, highlights that the “best case scenario” for victims of sexual abuse is also the saddest: “for people to believe you deserve justice, you have to be destroyed. The fact that feminism is ascendant and accepted does not change this”. During the time she spent as a volunteer in Kirgizstan, the violence she saw against children and women shocked her, but she also understood something that took me years to really interiorize: “I wish I had known—then, in Peace Corps, or in college—that the story didn’t need to be clean, and it didn’t need to be satisfying; that, in fact, it would never be clean or satisfying, and once I realized that, I would be able to see what was true”. I, too, wish I would’ve understood sooner that I didn’t need an impeccable story to be credible, that the problem wasn’t within me, but within society.
The consequences of the above-mentioned attitudes in terms of numbers are easy to see: by the end of 2018, one in four convicted abusers was sent to prison, while the rest received suspended sentences. Allow me to rephrase that: three out of four pedophiles avoided prison.
In 2019, almost 1,000 children were sexually abused in Romania (these are just the reported cases). More than half were abused by members of their own families. The abuser was tried in little more than 500 cases. As for the victims, most of them were sent back to the families who abused them.
I wondered, for a long time, if my case was unique, if I was an anomaly in a relatively healthy society where these things don’t happen at every street corner. It’s clear to me now – and it should be to all of us – that I’m no anomaly.
I always knew I’d write about what happened to me some day – it’s in my nature to communicate in writing with the world that I often feel disconnected from. While in 2017, when the #metoo hashtag and movement spread online, I was stirred to do something, it was the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Caracal in 2019 that made me lose sleep, patience and politeness. Tragically, the most shocking aspect of the case wasn’t the horrendous crimes, but the incompetence and indifference of the Romanian authorities who could’ve saved the last victim had they moved faster. Instead, when the girl managed to find a phone in her rapist’s house and called emergency services, the operator didn’t believe her and told her not to keep the line busy. The recording of the phone call was made public and a whole nation heard how a 15-year-old victim was being treated by the people who should’ve helped her. She was killed a few hours later.
I was furious, but incapable to join the storm of indignation on social media, even when my anger found similar opinions or experiences. It was an anger that isolated me, that made me hate everything about this country. I hated people (many of them men) who continued to make jokes about rape and Lolitas, who shrugged and sighed “what can you do?”. I hated the Romanian authorities who thought they were being unjustly persecuted and displayed a lack of self-awareness and empathy bordering on the effects of a lobotomy, and I could keep going but I might start to hyperventilate like last summer, when I locked myself in my room and sat on the floor, with my back against the side of the bed, trying to breathe like I’d learned in therapy and find something good in my life here, in a society that didn’t give a rat’s ass about my safety and, 18 years later, still didn’t give a rat’s ass about the safety of two girls.
In my therapy diary, I wrote with incandescent anger, with no intention to apologize for it – something truly rare.
July 29, 2019 (Monday)
After these past few days, after seeing what happened to Alexandra and Luiza (not “the teenager in Caracal” and “the other victim” as the media calls them), I feel like I’m about to blow. I’ve haven’t often experienced this kind of rage. Actually, it’s not just rage, that’s just at the surface. It’s sadness because they went through those things, because they ended their lives so tragically. Because they were children. It’s disgust towards the authorities, towards the people who are supposed to protect us and, case after case, we see them not doing that. People wonder why women don’t talk about abuse, why they don’t go to the police. That’s why; because someone at the other end of the line will say “don’t keep the line busy”, like they told Alexandra. I feel fear because this is not a safe country for women and children, no matter how much you’d like me not to generalize. Because I’m not generalizing – I can quote statistics, I can come up with a shitload of examples, I have no problem supporting my point. (…) In this country (surely others, too, but this is where I live and pay taxes), we don’t care enough. And I have zero interest in all the reasons and justifications. Communism and torn social fabric, wild transition, low standard of living – enough with the same old explanations. Right now, I’m interested to know where I can find a safe place, or at least a place where, if I call the emergency services, someone will believe me and send help. I’m at the end of my rope. This will be the end of the rope for many of us.
It really was the end of the rope for me. After Caracal, I decided to speak up and stop fearing words like “angry”, “aggressive” or “radical”, that were constantly thrown at me over the years. I don’t think it’s a coincidence they were mostly thrown at me by men. I decided to stop feeling like I’m overreacting if I tax men’s inappropriate reactions or if I don’t have the patience for every single one of them to reach an emotional awakening that makes them my partners, not my potential enemies.
The way in which I express myself today about my abuse, about trauma and coping mechanisms, was initially self-taught. I only went to therapy around the age of 22 and it didn’t become something constant until 25.
There were years and years of not talking to anyone about it. But I read books, I read online (infrequently), I listened to depressing music with a Saharan thirst and wondered if I would ever be normal, like the girls from school or the characters in the romantic comedies I was watching, who reached that stage of supreme happiness, perfect relationships and quiet lives. It was only in the past seven years, since I started to really identify the areas in my live stained by trauma, since the debate about sexual abuse spread in other countries and we’ve seen more cases and more resources, that I understood where I stand on the spectrum of sexual traumas.
For instances, the World Health Organization (WHO) refers to childhood sexual abuse as linked to “a relationship of responsibility, trust or power”. I managed to understand the power dynamic between my father and I, how the abuse was favored by the relationship of trust, by the manipulation that made me believe I was an accomplice for keeping quiet. According to a WHO statistic in 2014, around 18-20% of girls and 8% of boys will be sexually abused as minors, and the organization’s recent releases show that most abuses happen within their own families.
Another WHO study found evidence that preventing traumatizing experiences during childhood would substantially reduce physical and mental health problems in adults, which I hope doesn’t seem like a surprise – it’s common sense. And an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry is even more straightforward: eradicating adversity during childhood would lead to a 30% decrease in all mental health issues. It’s not a cliché that everything connects back to childhood.
As for Romania and its lack of statistics, during a WHO study in 2012, 1% of the subjects admitted to being physically abused – and if you grew up here in the ‘90s, you know that’s a gross under-reporting. A little over 5% confessed to being sexually abused. The researchers noted that “a large part” of the subjects didn’t want to answer the questions about sexual abuse and sexual partners.
Another important thing to remember is that childhood sexual abuse becomes an economic burden on the state, even if we don’t realize it. There are no statistics on Romania, but in the US, for instance, the economic burden caused by abuse in children (concerning health costs, education and justice) was, a few years ago, approximately 200,000 USD per non-fatal victim over the course of their life. I never calculated how much my father’s abuse cost me, strictly from a financial point of view. But if we take into account about seven years of constant therapy, out of which six months on treatment, plus an autoimmune disease frequently correlated to trauma and an eating disorder, I’m inclined to cut a receipt and I’m irritated I have no one to give it to.
Fortunately, – although the word choice seems strange in this context – I found a way out of my prison. A few months after my father’s outburst about my first boyfriend, a new letter appeared on the washing machine.
This time, neither he, nor my mother backed down and they got a divorce. By the beginning of tenth grade, my mother and I had moved to a two-bedroom apartment a couple of bus stops away. My father was shocked and insulted I didn’t stay with him. He must have cleverly manipulated Titus and Matilda, because they were on his side at the trial and even supported his claim to the three-bedroom apartment I grew up in, which my father wanted to keep.
I avoided any serious conversation with my father until the evening before my mom and I moved out. He told me to take whatever books I wanted from the large bookcase in the living room and I grabbed Germinal by Émile Zola. I’d heard it was one of the great French masterpieces and I wanted to check it off my list, like a meticulous girl. When he saw what I chose, he took it from my hands and told me to pick something else, because he cared about that book too much to let me have it. I didn’t want anything else.
That night, drunk out of his mind, he started moving our stuff, my mother’s and mine, out of the apartment, on the building’s hallway: the washing machine and other appliances that my mother got in the separation, our bags, everything. I asked him what the hell he was doing and why. My mother had gone to bed. He only said he was disgusted with me.
“OK, good,” I sighed and went back to my room.
In the morning, we moved out and I only saw him once more, at the trial, when I had to say in front of the judge which parent I wanted to live with.
He called me shortly after the hearing. He was drunk at noon and asked me how I was doing and if I’d still visit him. I wanted to get away from him so I said I’d visit at some point. There was no plan, no moment of supreme clarity when I decided “that’s it, I’m never going back there”. I knew too well you shouldn’t say big words. I simply didn’t answer the phone the next time he called. Or the next. Or that summer when I turned 17 and he called my grandparents’ house, where I was spending my vacation, to wish me a happy birthday. My grandmother, all teared up, asked me to come to the phone and “talk to dad”. I calmly took the receiver from her hand and hung up without saying a word to him.
“If you do this one more time, you’ll never see me again,” I snarled at her.
It’s been more than 15 years since that last phone call. I never saw or spoke to him again, with a determination that solidified in time. He stopped calling too.
In high school, I found the group of girls who, to this day, are my closest friends and chosen family, even if initially I couldn’t talk to any of them about my past. To be honest, ever since I decided to publish this essay I started talking to them about it, one or two at a time. Out of 10 girls, only two of them knew until a year ago.
In my adolescence, I took refuge in teenage activities and was, in general, the classic type of high school girl. I desperately wanted to fit into the type. If I took anything to the extreme, it was skipping school (my freshman year I had more absences that the seniors), smoking and the anger towards my mother, which I couldn’t even see clearly. I didn’t realize I was angry at her, but I punished her with sarcasm and ignoring boundaries.
And if I made a conscious decision during that time, once I escaped my father’s shadow, it was that no one would ever tell me what to do. I didn’t trust people. It’s something I still struggle with today, on a certain level. I desperately wanted to be independent, to live my life according to my own rules, to make up for those lost years when I felt captive. Maybe it’ll sound weird, but I was almost euphoric. I never went through a completely destructive phase: I didn’t become a junkie or an alcoholic, I didn’t have sex with tattooed bikers. I was a slightly more rebellious nerd at the best high school in the country. And I was fully aware of that, so I felt even more justified to tell the adults around me I no longer needed their services.
But I needed parents. Adolescence was hard. I only told a friend what had happened to me, around the age of 18. I said something bad happened. That my family was fucked up. I didn’t even go into detail.
In the meantime, I clenched my teeth, I rarely cried, I fortified myself until I didn’t know how to be soft anymore, until I got a rock-hard stomach and a necrotized heart. I occasionally thought about death, like those nights when I was sitting on the windowsill of my bedroom at age 13. I only stared at a fistful of pills once, in high school. It was more for the artistic effect. No one knew. Later, when I was 17, I pressed the tip of a knife above my belly button just a little, only to realize I could never go through with it. I slowly came to see I wasn’t going to do anything like that. Initially, because I didn’t want to give him satisfaction. Or society, who places people like me in a box of tired clichés.
On a certain level, my ego saved me. Later on, I realized I simply didn’t want that to be my story. I was curious to stick around and see what could happen.
I had needed good parents, but I had to learn to stop feeling sorry for myself, because no one can change theirs. I started working on my relationship with my mother and, slowly, we got so close that my friends called us Gilmore Girls. I never told her anything about my father. Despite my resentment, I didn’t want to cause her more pain. Then, when I was 25, she died of cancer.
I lost a lot over time and from a young age. Nothing lasted. I lost myself and that was hard to rebuild. To figure out who I was, who I became as a result of trauma. I was obsessed with surgically separating personality traits that came from trauma and those that were truly mine. This is box one, this is box two – we’ll only keep box two. That’s how I viewed the healing process for many years, until I grasped that it was all much more complicated. Trauma is a part of me, but it’s not all of me. I bitterly fought back every time someone spilled platitudes like “trauma made you stronger”, because platitudes keep us disconnected from phenomena we don’t understand. I don’t want trauma to have made me stronger, I don’t want to thank it for anything. I don’t want anyone to sleep soundly believing that trauma makes survivors stronger. I want them to get mad.
I stepped into adulthood with questions I couldn’t possibly have handled on my own. Can I love in a healthy way if I didn’t learn that at a young age? Can I learn as an adult, with all my baggage? Can I make non-destructive choices? Can I be the good element in someone’s life, the support, the anchor? Not just “the hurricane”, “the storm”, “the problem” like I’ve been called in the following years? Can I be “home” to someone?
I know, and I think I knew as a teen too, that yes, the things above are possible in theory. But, as I kept learning time and time again, theory always slips clumsily on the steep slope of practice and chaos. And I’m not a latent possibility, a larva that’s genetically predisposed to become a butterfly, but a human being with limited time on this planet and, I thought, some important shortcomings.
So can I, Ioana, answer “yes” to those questions?
The reality today is I don’t know, but I’m curious to try and willing to fuck up.
The reality at 16 was I had the nagging sensation the answer was “no”, even when I clung to a tyrannical optimism with bloody teeth. I was convinced the world only contained reason and probabilities, controllable and predictable situations, and math wasn’t on my side. At the same time, that tyrannical optimism and an exhausting effort not to let any vulnerability slip through the cracks kept me afloat for a while, when I honestly don’t know if anyone around me could’ve helped anyway. Maybe I’m wrong.
I also know the same tyranny trapped me in toxic or at least imperfect beliefs, such as the existence of an explanation and solution for anything, or universal truths, or the fact that everything depends on how well you control situations, reactions, your own thoughts and emotions. Or the fact that feelings are nice and all, until they get messy. For a long time, I thought I was the only person I could rely on and that, no matter how much you love someone, it’s not wise to offer them total access to your being, to your thoughts. I learned not to express dissatisfaction, because that might suggest I’m asking for something, and I don’t want to ask anything of anyone. I learned to roll my eyes at grand gestures and statements like “I would never hurt you” because, let’s face it, I know all too well you can’t say that.
I think I learned to roll my eyes at too many things and now I’m trying to have a thin skin, to not be so cautious and inaccessible. Some years ago, at a lunch in London with friends from my MA program, we went around the table and said the first word that came to mind when we thought of each other. When it was my turn, they all said “cynical”. I felt like someone slashed my skin with their nails. They were right, at least that’s what I was projecting. Now I keep telling myself that if I always keep my distance, if I’m not impressed by anyone or anything, if I don’t allow myself a fiery enthusiasm when I meet someone I like or a bitter sadness if things don’t work out, I’ll never get to where healing nests for so many of us: feeling safe among people.
At the same time, a lot of worst case scenarios came true. Therapists would invoke the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies, when you do things that confirm your negative beliefs – for instance, you only fall in love with people who will clearly hurt you.
But can you know anything for sure in this life?
That may be my biggest problem. Not the lack of trust in humans or the recurrent thought that I’m not good enough – but what my high school Philosophy teacher called “infinite chances at failure”. Which he thought I was perfectly capable of, just as he thought I was capable of greatness. So I have a solid conviction that things can always take a dark turn.
These thoughts make me press the brakes in relationships. I was always afraid to tell anyone “I love you” or “I need”, and I still have a rock in my stomach in these situations. Roxane Gay wrote in Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body that she too denied her desires and attractions after being raped as a child. It’s a book that I read with a lot of breaks and a lot of difficulty, because I found so much of myself expressed there. But it helped. “Having standards, or trying to have standards and sticking to them, has proven to be more difficult than I imagined,” she wrote. “It is hard to say, «I deserve something good. I deserve someone I actually like» and believe it because I am so used to believing, «I deserve whatever mediocrity comes my way».”
I wonder, perhaps too often, what kind of person I became. I wonder what kind of person I am in the context of publishing this essay. Am I a good person, like I desperately want to be, for drawing attention to a topic that’s been ignored and pasted onto certain classes and ethnicities? Am I a selfish person? Maybe I shouldn’t be the one using this platform, but someone else? Am I vengeful? Would it be so bad if I were?
“You’re torturing yourself because you want to make sure you’re making the perfect decision,” my therapist would smirk if she read the lines above. I know there’s no such thing as the perfect decision or the perfect vehicle for stories about abuse. And I know silence is hurting me. I don’t want to waste any more time thinking I’ll find the ideal way to talk about my experiences.
And then there’s something else. I’m still scared.
My abuser is free. We live in the same city. We haven’t seen each other in 16 years, but I can’t know it’ll never happen. I don’t know if this essay will reach him and how he’ll react. I know his freedom is my prison. I’m safe as long as I don’t speak. It’s a legitimate reason for any sexual abuse survivor whose aggressor is still out there to keep quiet. But I’m sick of being stuck in my fears.
I’m not looking for consequences for him. I hope I won’t suffer any either.
I want to metabolize my experiences the best way I know how, through writing, and then talk to people about what I wrote. I want others not to feel as alone as I did. I want to feel less alone. But there are rationalizations, even if they’re honest. I honestly don’t know what impact my story could have – probably something insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It’s hard to move mountains, and Jia Tolentino wrote that, nowadays, we operate according to a dubious set of preconceptions making us believe that simply confessing something online will have an impact, that posting equals acting. In the #metoo era, “people wrote about women ‘speaking out’ with prayerful reverence, as if speech itself could bring women freedom – as if better policies and economic redistribution and true investment from men weren’t necessary, too”.
What I can show is something Tolentino mentioned about the stories that surfaced: “What we have in common is obviously essential, but it’s the differences between women’s stories—the factors that allow some to survive, and force others under—that illuminate the vectors that lead to a better world”. And my story is sad up to a certain point, and filled with injustice, but it is the story of someone who lives in a much brighter present.
Over time, especially starting in high school, I always had refuge and help, extraordinary friends, financial resources to go to therapy, access to information on healing. I surrounded myself, largely, with people who have supported and encouraged me, who have helped me evolve even if they didn’t know the whole story. Not everyone is as lucky.
Still, representation matters. I didn’t grow up hearing stories like mine in Romania. Until I went to therapy, and even after, I got my information on abuse from abroad, from Western TV shows and podcasts, or pieces in The Atlantic or The New Yorker. No one in my circle talked about sexual violence. However, we all consume, more or less willingly, all sorts of macabre news stories about people from vulnerable categories who experience – only they, never us – horrifying traumas related to addiction, abuse and dysfunctional families.
It’s a lie we’re maintaining in our society that favors abusers, isolates victims, stigmatizes vulnerable communities and cuts their access to platforms that could share their stories, to justice, to credibility. I don’t want us to keep lying to ourselves and I don’t want to feel like my story doesn’t belong here. It does. Here I am. I’m not going anywhere.
All we need to do is look around, listen and actually support (not just cheer from the sidelines) as many voices as possible to share stories like this.
EDITORIAL NOTE: We generally use quotation marks to show direct quotes from interviews, but, in this case, we kept that convention to mark the author’s memory of events.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: It took a village and a year to publish this essay. Many thanks for advice and guidance to Adela Sălceanu and Arina Corsei Vultureanu. Special thanks to Cecilia Laslo, whose continued support pushed this essay (and myself) across the finish line. And to my girls, the chosen family that helped me heal: I don’t know who I would’ve become without you.
If you want to reach out to me, find me at email@example.com.
If you want to access Romanian-language resources about abuse and domestic violence, you can find them here.
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Although for 20 years now we’ve been trying to help women in Romania feel safer, being a victim is still more shameful than being an aggressor. This has to change.
1 comentarii la I speak to know I’m not alone
I’am dat linkul asta unei prietene – ma gandeam sa traduc eu dar m-am bucurat sa vd ca exista versiunea in Engleza.
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