I feel like I should give some disclaimer to this piece, some explanation of why, not only because the topic is tough, but also because it’s become a cliche. Writers, film makers, and students alike have been steered away from the topic of child abuse — it’s been done, the subject is stale, and every story that could be told has been told.
Yet, when I wrote the first version of Cousteau’s Daughter as a teenager, I didn’t care about any of these things. I was just a girl who had been sent to California with an ex-babysitter and her husband, who spent the summer molesting and threatening me. That experience was followed by being raped by a seventeen year old boy and a nineteen year old man. There was no one I felt I could turn to, so I went where it had become natural for me to go — to the world of words, where I could spill my secrets, cleanse my spirit, and maybe make some sense of a world that, to me, was frightening and unpredictable.
I have since eclipsed the experiences of my childhood, but have found that the responses to my writing about it range from sympathy to disgust. There are those who, in their compassion, wish to offer some comfort to the child from long ago, or the woman who carries the memories. Others find something revolting in the telling of the story, believing it signifies a propensity for being stuck in the past, an inability to “get over it”, or even the making of “excuses” for this or that failure as an adult. A few have even preached the gospel of forgiveness to me, as if I had the obligation to heal by way of acceptance, or by viewing my experiences as some sort of sideways, God-given blessing.
I appreciate the compassion given the child, but at the same time wish people to know that for the woman, the pain from events that happened almost thirty years ago is distant. I hesitate to use the word “healed” because I’m not sure what it means in this context. I don’t know who I might have been or how I may have felt had I not gone through this particular pain as a child. No experience, much less one that is traumatic, gets to sit outside the tapestry of one’s life, where all things fuse together to create character and personality. My way of “getting over it” has always been to tell the stories, my own and and those of other children — even in times of resistance. As for forgiveness, I have none for those who would lay a violent hand upon children, no matter what their backstory may be. There is no abuse I would ever consider a blessing, no matter what poetic justice might follow.
All that said, Cousteau’s Daughter is still an important piece to me, not because it’s personally cathartic any longer, but because it was written so close to the events. It is a child’s story, written by a child who, even in pain and turmoil, loved poetry and words, the oceanic world of Jacques Cousteau, and Lucky Charms cereal.
Some of the phrasing was cleaned up as I got older, but not much. All the elements, including the length, have remained intact. The length, as well as the subject matter, prevented this piece from being published in literary magazines, but I always wondered if it wouldn’t work better as a visual piece. A while ago, I put out the call for a videographer on this site, and Elaine Charbonneau stepped up to make it happen. I thank her for her patience, her care, and the hours she gave to this project. My friend, artist and photographer Linda Woods, saw my vision even better than I did, and provided photographs to tell the tale. The only thing lacking was a professional narrator, but I thank my local radio station, KQSP-AM, for allowing me to use their studio.
Stop it Now! is an organization which has done much to bring attention to the issue of child abuse, and I am happy to dedicate this video to them, as well as to all of those who have had to grow up too soon. The child in me also holds onto some scant hope that someone who is thinking of molesting might watch this, and seek help before they act. The sexual invasion of a child is not just a physical act, but one that causes long-term emotional devastation.
Does it matter? Is one more tale of child abuse even relevant? I don’t know. I only know that the story of Cousteau’s Daughter has long been in my heart to tell — and now it’s been told.
If it’s relevant to you, or others you may know, please share it. And please do visit the Stop it Now! website to learn more about what you can do to help prevent child abuse.