There are predators who can intuitively pick out the insecure and solitary child. The cautionary childhood watchfulness I learned at my mother’s feet had not evolved to warn me of other people’s intentions, only to observe their features and actions with some amount of fascination or horror. The idealistic daydreams I relied on as saving grace and escape did not save me from the actual ill-intentions of others. I was molested twice by the age of ten, and raped twice by the age of fifteen.
There was no trusted adult or friend to confide in and I bore my own secrets uncomfortably, seeking solace from books — from writers who invented tragedy or shared their own experiences. I remember being frustrated in my search. No book I read really captured the futility of a child’s fight against an adult — like a fly trying to push away a bear, and almost none spoke of the days of bleeding, or the excruciating pain. Instead, novels often made rape a bloodless event and sometimes, in Harlequin-type novels, even a desirable one, where brute force and helplessness collided and turned into romanticism.
As a teen, I began to write of rape in metaphors of war and catastrophes, where I could fill page after page with anger, devastation, and pain. In time, my epic poems became shorter and less catastrophic, and I began to heal. My final poem on the subject, “Cousteau’s Daughter”, which I first drafted at fifteen, , is the result of integrating my experiences with molestation and rape into a singular event that I could break away from with hope and imagination.
All at once shamed and seeking, I dropped out of school in eighth grade to work full-time. As a young teen, much of what was previously fluid and difficult to grasp seemed to take on more solid form. My propensity for daydreaming transmuted into an appreciation for creativity, and my mental wandering transformed into earnest idealism. My watchfulness, as well as my aptitude for reading, lent me the ability to learn new tasks quickly, which proved useful in the adult workplace.
A few months short of my sixteenth birthday, I left home in search of the Promised Land where it was said that hard work and ingenuity allowed even those on bottom rungs of society to realize their greatest dreams. My dreams of adulthood were not large or opulent. I wanted to live an ethical, kind, and dignified life. I wanted personal security, good friends, guileless intimacy, and just enough money to pay for the basics and keep the cupboards full. I imagined retiring one day to a small cottage on the water, with a fireplace, a porch, a mahogany desk, and two friendly dogs that would fetch sticks while walking along the beach with me.
I could not be Cousteau’s daughter, but I thought that if I could learn to navigate the adult world — if I could learn to swim with the tide — I might be able to realize my dreams. One of the premises of American life is that the circumstance one is born into need not be permanent, or determine the future. History is filled with stories of everyday people who overcame huge obstacles and achieved their missions, and poor men who came from nothing and built lasting empires. I was determined to set aside the labels and hardships of my childhood. I gathered my strength and courage and a suitcase full of books, and set sail as an energetic, aspiring, and hope-filled individual.
My journey was a somewhat hobbled, spirited, and often bewildering adventure that took me so many places — places I never imagined or intended. I could never have imagined holding down the dozens of jobs I did to support my writing career — from factory worker to substance abuse counselor to advertising executive — or starting college in my late twenties, or meeting the great number of incredible people I did, under so many varying circumstances.
My circumvention of the American dream was not intentional. Some may argue a case for predetermined or obvious destiny, but their hopes were surely different than my own. As an adult, I’ve never needed more than what I could give myself, and never wanted anything other than a multifaceted life experience.
From the reservoir of childhood pain, a river of words began to flow. From that river came healing, and from healing came the challenge to live my own authentic life. in all its haphazard but veritable glory, even if it’s a life lived on the periphery of American tradition and outside the bounds of social convention.
Jacques Cousteau once said, “From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”
The father of my imagination always knew what to say to me.