Thursday, March 22, 2018

Pulling Threads :: Secrets, Lies & Paternity

The first in a series I'm calling Pulling Threads. It's a long one, 3024 words.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
***Please note my disclaimer in the side bar.***


It was the summer of 1983 and I was living in Salinas, CA with one of my aunts and her significant-other when that fated phone call came from my 15-year-old baby sister. The one that would yank a thread loose on the fabric of my life. She’d called to share with me that she and I had different fathers. She began,

“I think since you’re going to be 18 on your birthday you’re old enough to know that we have different fathers.”

I insisted that she was mistaken, that I had seen her birth certificate and that we did, in fact, have the same father. She convinced me otherwise as she told me her father’s name and explained how she found out.

Initially, I wasn’t fazed by the news and ended the phone call saying, “You’ve always been my sister and you’ll always be my sister.”

The more I thought about it, the more I began to feel uneasy and confused about the news. My stomach knotted up as I kept asking myself how and why I could not have known this. How can this be? My mother would have told me. She wouldn’t have lied about something like this.  I chewed on these thoughts until my aunt returned home from work that evening. I told her about the conversation I’d had earlier that day with my sister, and asked her, “Did you know that Sally and I have different fathers?”  

She said, “Yes.”

“Who else in the family knows that we have different fathers?”  

“Everyone does,” she replied.

“Well how come I didn’t know?”  

She explained to me that my sister had found out we had different fathers when she was in the juvenile system. Apparently, my Uncle Cecil told my mother that she should tell me about my sister’s paternity, but my mother refused. For some reason she did not want me to know.

The more I thought about it the more upset I became. I was angry, hurt, confused and feeling betrayed. Everyone knew? I finally decided to call my mother and ask her about it.  To put it mildly, she was not pleased to hear that I had been let in on her little secret.  I asked “How come you never told me that Sally and I have different fathers?”  

She responded with a mix of panic and surprise, “Well, who the hell told you?”  

I explained, “Sally called me today and told me. How come you never told me we have different fathers?”

Panic and surprise turned to defensive and angry, “Because it’s none of your goddamned business!”  

I was shocked and furious.  What the hell does she mean it is none of my business? I cursed her out and slammed the phone down.  

That night, I went to bed and cried. My world had come crashing down upon me. I was restless and unable to sleep as I muffled my sobs. I kept thinking about all of the times my friends had asked me if I were sure that my sister and I had the same father. They would always remark about how we didn’t look anything alike. I kept assuring them that we did have the same father, that my mother said we had the same father and that my sister just looked more like him. My mother’s biggest pet peeve was lying! I was confused and heartbroken. My mind fought to put the pieces together. I couldn’t believe that my mother, of all people, had lied to me. I resented that she insisted on a standard of absolute truth from me and my sister. Why? Why did she lie? What was the harm in me knowing that my sister and I had different fathers? Why was my knowing that we had different fathers such a frightening thing for her? I became filled with guilt and shame for all the times I lied to my friends, for all the times I didn’t see what everyone else had seen. By morning I was pissed. I was overwhelmed with resentment and rage towards my mother.

I had decided that the answers to all of my questions were obvious. My mother had an affair. Why else would my father have deserted me? My mother had betrayed him. The only reason I grew up without my father was because my mother had pushed him away. If she hadn’t slept with another man and gotten pregnant, I would have had a happy childhood!

I soaked myself in this overwhelming rage.  I was overcome with emotion and I didn’t know what to do. It was then that I chose to let my mother know how much I hated her and I worked very hard to give her as much pain and grief as I possibly could. I had no regard for her feelings.  I didn’t care if she felt hurt. I didn’t care if she felt embarrassed. I was livid and I was going to make sure she knew it. I began to write her hate letters. Nasty, hateful letters filled with every accusation I could think of. I made sure she knew that I knew the truth. She had an affair, she had cheated on my father, she had betrayed my father, and that was the only reason I didn’t have a father. I hated her for it and I would never forgive her.

The time came when I had to move back to my mother’s house. It wasn’t easy. I had no choice. I was still in high school and my senior year was about to begin. The tension in the air, the anger and hatred that filled the entire house, was so thick it was suffocating. However, the silent treatment only works for so long. I had left my mother a note on the door as to my whereabouts, and signed it, Hate.  Apparently, one of her friends got a look at the note.  When I returned to the house, I was made aware that my “hate” notes had to stop. My basic attitude was, you can kiss my ass.  The tension, anger and pent up resentment, all led to a huge confrontation.  At the top of my lungs I shouted, “You cheated on my father and that’s why he left!”
“No! I did not!”

“You had an affair and that’s why he left. That’s why I don’t have a father!”

She screamed, “I didn’t have an affair!”  

“Then why did my father leave?!”  

“He’s not your father!”

Wait, Not my father? 

I pushed for the truth, demanding to know who my father was. I pushed and pushed and pushed.  

She could not take it any longer. With saliva spewing from between her lips, she screamed, 

“I was raped!”  

I was speechless. I couldn’t breathe. Everything I thought I knew was speeding off into a tailspin of lies. I was falling behind. The name on my birth certificate is just that, a name, a lie and I was never wanted. I stormed off to my room. Violent images flashed through my mind. This was my new reality.

There I was, 18-years-old, getting ready to go out into the world when I learned I didn’t know any thing. I had no idea who I was and I had no foundation to build upon. I was already battling low self-esteem.  My glass was already half empty. Everything I thought I knew was a lie. It was as if someone took a baseball bat to a water glass on the table...and I was the water glass. Shattered.and broken.and empty.

I reached out to a counselor I had worked with before. He wanted my mother to come in for a session. She declined the invitation and instead, left me a note with a very generic description of my father and his name. My feelings of resentment towards my mother grew.

Through the process of healing, I decided that I could no longer deny who I really was. I was not Dan’s daughter. That was a lie that I could no longer give life or energy to. I decided that the first thing I needed to do to accept my truth, to redefine myself was to hire an attorney and change my name. I chose to release Dan’s name and take on my biological father’s name. Understandably, my mother was not happy about this. I recall her screaming from the kitchen, “Why in the hell would you want to take on the name of a rapist?!”

“Because that’s who I am.”  

Like it or not, I had no connection to the name she gave me. To ease my mother’s anguish, I decided to also take on my grandmother’s maiden name. Taking on my biological father’s name was merely a formality; a gesture at refusing to live in denial. Taking on my grandmother’s name at the same time was a gesture in reminding me that I was loved and accepted regardless of the circumstances of how I got here. This simple legality marked the beginning of my journey towards healing.

I still needed to reconcile my feelings about being a product of rape. I didn’t know who I was, or where I came from. I didn’t know where to begin. The only thing I did know was that I could no longer claim that Dan was my father. That meant not allowing my mother or anyone else to claim him as my father either. My paternity might not be pretty, but it’s all I had. I take no shame in saying so. It is what it is. While I acknowledge my mother did the best she could with what she had, it just wasn’t enough for me. No matter how hard she may have tried to create a mother-child bond, it just wasn’t there. Her path in life took a sharp detour and spiraled out of control. She might say she’s loved me from the moment she knew I was coming, but I do not believe that.

About twenty years later I had a friend tell me that I should have never been told that I was a product of rape. I disagreed. I explained to her that it was a kind of blessing because it made so many things clear to me. As far back as I can remember I have felt different. I simply felt as though I didn’t belong. I didn’t feel loved or wanted. There was a gnawing sense that I was being treated differently. It was as though my extended family was trying too hard. I had no idea where these feelings came from. I just knew that there was something different about me. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. 

One of the clearest ah-ha moments I had was remembering an extended trip I made to West Covina, CA to visit family. I was eight-years-old. Upon my return home, as I carried my suitcase into the house, my mother said, “Well, put that suitcase down and give me a hug.” I didn’t know why, but for some reason, I had no desire to hug her, nor do I recall being happy to see her. I let her hug me as I demanded to go to my grandmother’s house. As I look back to that day, it was as if I was annoyed by her request. It was as if I knew she wasn’t sincere. I was eight-years-old and already felt as though my mother didn't really love me. My aunt's mother-in-law was present so we had to put on a good show.

Later that day, my mother took me to see my grandmother and my aunt. I ran into their home, hugging my aunt with all the love, enthusiasm and joy I could muster up. I found my grandmother down the hall in her bedroom, and ran full speed to greet her with the same excitement I’d greeted my aunt with. I recall hearing my mother remark, “Gee, I had to beg for my hug.” Her remark went into one ear and out the other. I was happy to be home, to see the people who loved me. While it confused me, I held no guilt over not greeting my mother in the same manner at which I had greeted my aunt and grandmother. Unlike with my mother, I seemed to have a clear sense of authenticity and sincerity in their love and acceptance. 

I never understood why I didn’t want to greet my mother that day. I never understood why my mother and I weren’t connected, why I didn’t feel bonded with her, nor why I didn’t view her love as sincere. I recall, at the age of sixteen, telling one of my aunts that I didn’t love my mother. A devout Christian woman, she immediately told me, “You can’t say that. She’s your mother and you have to love her.” I didn’t understand this lack of love that I had for my mother. I didn’t understand why we appeared to be so distant. It was more than teenage angst and rebellion. It was the way I had always felt, even as a young child.

My new reality put so many things into perspective. Now I understood. I understood why I never felt connected with my mother. Now I understood why I didn’t want to hug my mother when I was only eight-years-old. Now I knew why I didn’t feel love for or from my mother. So many things became clear to me. Once I got through the shock of finding out about my paternity, I felt a weight shift.

Today I continue the journey. I do not deny that it has been excruciatingly painful, and on some days, remains to be. This thread is one of several that has ripped the fabric of my being and dropped me naked into a pile of mucky crap. Knowing why things are the way they are doesn’t make all the anger, resentment and pain go away. How do you learn to love yourself when you’ve never been taught to love? How do you find worth in your existence when you have always felt worthless and invisible? How do you know what is true when you’ve always been lied to? How do you learn to trust when you’ve never felt safe? How do you come back from not being wanted? How do you find yourself when it’s buried beneath a fountain of lies, coverups and denials?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. Some days I think I’m on the cusp of discovering my value and my worth, but most days it feels as though I am dangling from a tightrope without a net. I do not maintain much of a relationship with my mother and often skip family gatherings to avoid seeing her. It’s just too much. It takes too much energy. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you want to continue with a relationship and not everyone gets that. I've been approached and told I am not doing enough to heal the relationship with my mother. I am asked if we're speaking yet. It's easy to judge others when you don't know their story.

I spend most of my days self-loathing, feeling unloved, unwanted, invisible and worthless. It takes me right back to my childhood. Intellectually I know that I create my own experience. I have to make myself feel loved and valued. I can’t rely on anyone else to do this for me. At the same time, as I am grappling to hold on, I wish I had someone close to me who acknowledged and understood depression & anxiety. Someone to stretch out the safety net and help me get back up when I fall.

I’ve told this story many times. I used to wonder why I hadn’t healed already, but recently I discovered this quote:

To heal from trauma means to face your pain and loss while simultaneously seeking solace and, at moments, finding joy. Doing this on a day-to-day basis is how you survive. Healing is an active state, not a destination. In that light, and no other, it’s a beautiful thing.—Alice Sebold

This is a life’s journey. There will be good days, and not-so-good days and horribly painful days. The thing I am learning is to notice and embrace the moments. The moments when I find myself giggling at the squirrels chasing each other in a game of tag. The moments when the steam curls up from a fresh, hot cuppa. The moments when I put on a sweater straight out of the dryer. The moments when something pleasing, peaceful or surprising happen. I’m learning that noticing these moments is essential, albeit, challenging.

Over the course of the last year, through the magic of an‘s DNA test, I have been connected with a cousin from my biological father’s side of the family. He passed away in 1993 and to my knowledge I am his only child. I haven’t spoken with my cousin much. It’s a strange place to be. A mix of excitement over finding a bridge to your existence and apprehension. What questions do I ask? How much do I intrude? Am I intruding? At the very least, I know that part of my story, his name, is true.

My memory is made of pockets.  Secretive, selective and full of holes.”
                             —Christina Rosalie

I hope as I share the threads of my fabric, no matter your life experience, you close your eyes, take a deep breath and whisper,

 “I am not alone.”   

[Footnote]: I have been asked on more than one occasion if I have considered that I am not a product of rape. It has been suggested that perhaps it was my mother’s way of coping. It was the 60’s and she was still a teenager. She has since said some things that are inconsistant and don’t fit the original narrative. Perhaps she had convinced herself she was raped as a means of self-protection. I don’t know. All I have to go on are the pieces she’s told me. If it was a means of self-protection, she believes it so deeply it’s difficult to contest. Only she can define her experience. Either way, those three little words keep playing over and over in my head.

Pulling Threads :: The Boarder

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