Published on October 27th, 2016 | by Zoe Zolbrod0
POCKET KNIVES by Zoe Zolbrod from THE TELLING
My son collects pocket knives. I told him about the time on a Girl Scout campout I disobeyed the common rule of whittling, the demonstrated knowledge of which had helped me earn me a badge, and pulled my knife towards me rather than away while fashioning a tin can camp stove. I cut a quarter inch chunk of flesh off the edge of my thumb, along with a crescent of nail. Knowing that I shouldn’t have been carving that way, I kept quiet about the wound. I took my bandana down to the pump and soaked it with cold water, wrapped it tightly around my finger. Every few minutes I glanced down to see how far the blood had soaked through, making excuses to go back to the pump and rinse out the cloth when it was saturated, to wrap it tight round again. No one noticed. The throbbing in my hand thumped loud as a drumbeat through my whole body, but that made me steady. In the tent that night, I unwrapped the bandana and showed my friends the gash, their flashlights trained on it. I borrowed another bandana and kept pressing. By morning the bleeding had slowed enough so that I could use band aids to staunch the stream. I used all those in my first aid kit as well as my friends’. The scar was gone by the time I had kids, so I had no visual to offer them, but the story was dramatic enough to garner their interest all the same. I don’t see it as a tale that offers a clear moral. My instinct tells me that I can build my children’s trust by sometimes offering stories that don’t.
But then I second-guess the merits of that approach.
“I want you to know,” I told my son, “I won’t get mad at you if you come to me with an injury. I might lecture you, but it’s worth one lecture to make sure you don’t make anything worse.”
“Okay,” he said.
I hope that when push comes to shove he won’t sneak around if he’s hurt, no matter the cause. Even if that’s not exactly what my stories caution.
When I was a teenager, and after I had already gotten into and been punished for a few dramatically drunken or brazen scrapes, my parents decided that my honesty and safety should be paramount, more important than rules. For instance, if I needed a ride somewhere because the driver I was with had been drinking, I was to call them and let them know. I wouldn’t get in trouble for being at a gathering where there was alcohol. This arrangement was predicated on their sense that my hunger for teenage thrill was natural and probably too keen to thwart—look what had happened when my uncle had tried to box his kids in, after all—but that I was also fundamentally level-headed, a view supported by my dutiful completion of AP-level homework and my responsibility at any job I took.
I pushed it with my parents. Itchy for change and adventure, I was a hard partier in high school. I remember being drunk past midnight one night—there were many such nights—and calling from a phone booth to ask them to come pick me up, probably more out of convenience than anything else. They’d been sleeping when I rang. When the tone of my mom’s voice veered toward anger, I played the trump card: but you told me to always be honest, not to get in the car with someone who was drunk.
And if I was honest about where I was going, I’d wave that like a truce flag to outlaw any incoming nos. One weekend, I told them as I left the house that I was heading to a co-ed sleepover at a male friend’s. When the host’s parents returned on Sunday and deduced there’d been a bacchanal, they called the homes of everyone they’d gotten their son to name to encourage parents to take some recourse. When my dad explained his and my mother’s position over the phone to the other dad, a long-time friend of theirs, the other parent’s angry skepticism filled our kitchen. Isn’t it a parent’s job to ensure that their kids aren’t running amuck, copulating drunkenly? Weren’t we too young to handle these things? And who wants to think about their kids drinking and drugging and groping each other anyway?
I don’t. I was twelve when I started drinking. My oldest is eleven as I write this. The thought of my children doing what I did in those early years, especially, is almost impossible to fathom. I tell myself that we live in a different kind of place than the one where I grew up, where there’s more to do than get a buzz on. But I think my parents’ logic was fundamentally correct: if they were to have any chance of punishing and restricting me into partying less, we would have had to fight and I would have had to lie a lot more. By senior year, my parents and I were good friends, and my binge drinking was largely behind me at an age when many American kids were just gearing up to go at it. Was this due to good parenting or good luck?
According to Ann Hulbert’s book Raising America, which puts child-rearing schools into a historical context, very little of advice coming from so-called parenting experts is scientifically born out. Hubert provides evidence that the philosophies of the best-selling experts in the field can be traced to whether the authors seek to repudiate or recreate the conditions in which they were raised, rather than to any set of facts. Among my friends who have kids, I notice the same tendency.
In many ways, I fall into the camp of borrowing from my parents’ parenting strategies—their mix of leniency and authority; their prioritization of honesty. But I believe I’ve made improvements on handling issues related to the body and sexual abuse. On these topics, where the only example handed down to me is mostly an absence, I’ve unreservedly looked for expert guidance. Periodically, I use bath times or bedtimes or after-dinner moments with my children to—sometimes awkwardly, sometimes smoothly—check-off items from lists like the following from the nonprofit Darkness to Light.
- Teach your children about their bodies, about what abuse is, and, when age-appropriate, about sex. Teach them words that help them discuss sex comfortably with you.
- Model caring for your own body, and teach children how to care for theirs.
- Teach children that it is “against the rules” for adults to act in a sexual way with them and use examples. Teach them what parts of their bodies others should not touch.
- Be sure to mention that the abuser might be an adult friend, family member, or older youth.
- Start early and talk often. Use everyday opportunities to talk about sexual abuse. One survey showed that fewer than 30% of parents ever discussed sexual abuse with their children. And even then, most failed to mention that the abuser might be an adult friend or family member.
- Be proactive. If a child seems uncomfortable, or resistant to being with a particular adult, ask why.
In doing so, I think I’ve created an opening for my children to come to me if they’ve been approached sexually or in a way that makes them uncomfortable. And if my children were to indicate to me that someone had trespassed their boundaries, or if I were to witness behavior that suggested sexual abuse might be occurring, I believe I’m prepared to handle it sensitively. To not turn away. To act firmly but not in a manner that would alarm them.
But even though I’ve cultivated in myself a pro-sex attitude and a bent toward frankness, discussing matters of sex and sexual assault with my kids hasn’t come as easily to me as I would have once believed, and it took me longer to get started than it should have.
My son is much more outgoing than I am, much more comfortable around adults than I ever was as a child. He’ll turn his sunshine beam on anyone. Since toddlerhood, he’s struck up conversations with homeless people, museum guards, authority figures, other parents. He’ll happily accept social overtures from wherever they come in the rare case he hasn’t made one first. I see this quality as a strength. From the time that he could speak in full sentences, I felt a conflict between my desire not to undermine his trust in others and my pressing need to start the conversation about inappropriate touching.
He was almost five when I broached the topic for the first time, finally bringing it up one weekend in the middle of tidying the art supplies that were scattered on our big farmhouse table. He seemed far away from me, all the way on the other side of the wide pine tabletop, which came up to his chest.
“Has any big person every tried to touch your bumbie or your testicles or your penis?”
His head barely shook. His thick hair was longish, his bangs hanging below his eyebrows and making his head look extra large on his string bean neck. He blinked up at me apprehensively and said nothing, unusual for him.
“No big person except me and Daddy and the doctor should ever ask to touch or see those parts, and you shouldn’t have to touch or see theirs, okay?”
He gave a single chin-bob for a nod. His face flickered incomprehension, and then his attention turned.
“Please tell me or Daddy if someone wants to touch you there, okay? Not every adult is a good person you can trust.”
It pained me to say those words to him, and his look of confusion and innocence hurt even more. At his age I had a fantasy life that included elaborate, roaming vehicles devoted to genital-based humiliations and punishments, but he appeared to have absolutely no context in which to place my statements. He seemed unable to imagine one. It was easy to believe that his very wide-heartedness would protect him, somehow. Sunshine as disinfectant. And there was that niggling sense—which I knew enough to discount but sometimes claimed with an almost-pride—that my own shadowy corners and precocious interest in sex made my childhood abuse if not forgone, then more likely.
When my son was in first grade and in the chess club, we received a notice from the school district that they’d been contacted by the FBI about one of the chess coaches. Apparently, the feds had intercepted some letters that he’d sent to an incarcerated friend, which included sexual references to children and photographs of kids on the chess team—fully dressed and engaged in matches—with lewd statements written above some of their heads.
Although many parents had gotten a weird vibe from the coach, who’d been in the military and had a strange intensity to him, the kids universally loved him. The district and the principal had been very responsive to the news they’d received, informing the parents in a systematic way, meeting personally with those whose children were included in the photographs, but they left us largely on our own to deal with our kids’ reaction to losing their coach. When the news came down after a couple weeks of his absence that he wouldn’t ever be coming back, my son sobbed.
“Why?” he cried, body shaking and snot running. “Why? He was the best coach ever!”
In the face of his pain and my alternation between panic at what had almost happened and near-disbelief about what had, I grew frantic.
“They found some letters where he was saying bad things about some of the kids. The police thought he was probably going to do bad things to kids.” My tone was urgent and pleading.
“But he was always so nice to us!”
“Sometimes a grown-up acts that way so the kids won’t understand they’re going to do something bad. I’m so sorry that this is true, but not all adults can be trusted!”
“I don’t understand! Even if he did something wrong, why don’t they give him one more chance?”
“The school and the grown-ups who care about you can’t take any chances when it comes to protecting you. We have to watch out!”
I couldn’t go farther in my explanation, even as I felt like I was blowing my chance to get this right, to impart important knowledge. I had given my son all the words, but I couldn’t utter them in relation to an adult he’d admired: genitals, testicles, butts, penises. He was shy about using these words even in relation to his own self-care.
“Why can’t we even say goodbye?” The injustice overwhelmed him and his crying mounted. I put my arms around him, and we crumbled down together so he could wipe his snot and tears on the knee of my jeans.
Unfortunately, I had a chance to improve on my response a couple years later, when another well-liked coach was dismissed for asking kids during a travel tournament to come hang out in his hotel room. The kids hadn’t been under the coach’s purview at the tournament. The oldest among them felt suspicious enough about the invitation to report to his mom, who reported it to the other children’s parents and to the principal at school.
When I tried to talk to my son frankly about why he couldn’t see the coach again, his eyes glazed over. He never expressed any curiosity when it came to matters of sex. He practiced outright avoidance whenever I tried to bring the subject up.
But he was old enough, and the situation was specific enough, that I felt I could talk to him. I felt like I had to.
“Listen, this stuff really happens. Something like that happened to me when I was around your age.”
His head jerked up, his eyes wide. “What?”
I didn’t tell him about Toshi. I told him about the time a friend and I had been roaming around the deserted student union building on the college campus on a summer afternoon, playing hide and seek in the same echo-y halls I would later walk down on my way to violin lessons. A middle-aged white man had been the only other person we’d seen in the building, and it did seem strange, the way he was strolling with his hands jangling in his pockets down the same out-of-the-way corridors we were, but we felt we owned that campus in the summer breaks, and we were in the thick of our game; it didn’t occur to us to stop. His comments were innocuous enough, as was his comb-over, his pale face and pocket shirt. Just an annoying grown-up. Until eventually, he cornered me as I was getting a drink at a fountain by a restroom, and when I turned around, he grabbed my crotch and murmured something like, “What you got there?”
“Don’t!” I batted his hand and sidestepped him, ran to the center of the building, a two-story lobby flanked by banks of entrance doors.
“Jennifer! Jennifer! Come out!” I yelled to my friend, breaking the still air where our footsteps had been the loudest thing. And there she was.
Her dad Biff came to pick us up moments later, and we told him what happened. I could see him do calculations, switch into a different mode. He was a short, broad, quiet man, with a carton of Luckies and a gun rack in his Jeep.
“And there he is, Daddy,” my friend said in a voice meant to be heard. We weren’t powerless anymore. We weren’t alone. We had a man, too. “That man, there.” He was slipping out of the building, and as she pointed he picked up his pace down the broad cement stairs.
“Hey!” Biff called, more a grunt than a word. “Hey, you stop right there!” He started after the crotch-grabber, went halfway down the flight, but the other man was moving as quickly as he could without outright running—the clank of his change reached our ears— and Biff would have had to fully engage in a chase to catch up. And then what? I could see him ask the question of himself, think the better of it. He had to be more dad than avenger; he had to stay with us. He walked me in to my house instead of dropping me off, and he talked to my parents. Together, they called the police. Two came quickly. They listened to me soberly, one sketching as I talked.
“Does this look about right?”
“Sort of,” I said. “Maybe his glasses were darker. Yeah.”
I gave my son most of these details. I even used the word crotch, which sounded vulgar in his proximity. “And a little while later, maybe a few weeks, maybe a couple months, they caught him raping a girl in a parking lot,” I told my son. “It’s a terrible thing, but you have to know. Bad people are out there.”
We looked into each other’s eyes. Serious. I saw that he heard me. He’d wanted to protect himself from knowing this, from knowing anything about these shadows, and up until then he’d been able to, but he let me in with my dark knowledge. It made me happy. It made me sad.
“The Telling is a necessary book; hard at times, yes, often breathtakingly beautiful, and most importantly, profoundly accessible. Childhood sexual abuse is a subject we hide from—it’s too awful, too taboo—but here, Zolbrod gives us nuance and complexity, truth that pushes past the single story of victim and into this beautiful mess of a life. At times, I wanted to set the walls on fire. At times, I wanted to put down the book and hug my small son. At times, I was swept away in the narrative, an expertly woven structure of what a young girl lived and a grown woman understood. And always, the questions: when and how and who do you tell? Zolbrod is telling us. Let’s listen.” — Megan Stielstra, author of Once I Was Cool
Photos (except author portrait and book cover) are all creative commons license, sourced at Flickr.