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Flashbacks and fear: How abuse lingers, affecting everything

In the 1990s, when I was the editor of a Star Tribune project called Mindworks, I was giving a speech to a group of educators when I said out loud words only a couple of people had ever heard me say: “When I was a little girl, I was molested by my grandfather.” I was a veteran public speaker, but as I said those words, the faces in front of me vanished and turned into hazy globes of colored light. I disassociated completely. Then the faces returned.

Misti Snow
Misti Snow
I incorporated my experience into my future speeches – and it never became easy — but the focus wasn’t me and I never shared details. My point was that educators and others who worked with children were the adults who through their examples of goodness could comfort children hiding secrets, children who had encountered evil that had shattered their innocence and their faith in human beings. I wanted my unthinkable experience to result in something good.

No one ever talked about it

I was abused more than 55 years ago, when no one ever talked about abuse or rape because it supposedly didn’t happen. I suppressed the memories so deeply that I only knew something was very wrong with me. I figured I was simply crazy, and I spent most of my time as a child and teenager trying to be perfect and hiding depression and rage I didn’t understand.

In my late 20s, shortly after I became a mother, I began having strange physical flashbacks. No images, no details, just an overpowering sense of horror that would nearly level me. Soon, I left a wonderful marriage to a man I had loved since I was 15, without really knowing why.

My 30s were devastating. Divorced, I was eventually in a three-year relationship with a fine man when I unexpectedly fell deeply in love with another, who became my second husband. In that turmoil, flashbacks increased, including an evening when I was alone in my home and had the overpowering sense that someone dressed in khaki clothes was going to murder me. I fled the house. Later that night, I had the vision of my grandfather – who died when I was 11 – in his khaki clothes. I ran to the bathroom and tried to crawl through the wall.

The trauma becomes almost cellular

You see, people don’t remember because when horror happens, the trauma becomes almost cellular; it exists in every molecule of one’s being. To excise it is hell. To unearth why I was suffering was like taking a scalpel to my existence and cutting away until I was a raw mess. I still have the letter I wrote in a frenzy to the little girl I once was: “I hate you, little girl, for what you did to me.” It had to have been all her fault because what man could possibly hurt a child like that?

I wanted the memories. When I was 12, I was molested by an adolescent. I never forgot those details or the shame or the dire impact that, too, had on my life, and I also didn’t tell. But I cannot picture what happened on my grandparents’ farm.

My therapist and I decided to try hypnosis. In the session, this voice of a feisty, funny little girl emerged, but her spunk was not sufficient to release the images. Later, the therapist and her consultant told me they didn’t want me to remember. They thought it would kill me.

Spasms and fright

I did “body work” on a houseboat on the Mississippi. First one arm and then my legs went into terrible spasms, I sobbed and shook as snot ran down my face. The woman treating me told my therapist that whatever happened to me was horrific, and I had thought I was going to die. I had had the convulsions before and have had them since. When my second husband and I would make love during those years, a smell, a pain, a miscue would cause what I called “an episode.” I would go completely quiet and turn away from him in slow motion, as imperceptibly as possible. I tried not to breathe, to turn invisible. But then my left arm would go into spasms, my legs would try to run through the sheets. Sometimes I tried to hide under the mattress; once I ran out into the snow. My husband would say, “You’re safe. Open your eyes. Stay here.” Eventually, the spasms would end and the sobbing begin. My husband cradled me for hours.

This continued through my 40s when I was working full time, delivering scores of speeches around the country, giving interviews on the radio, and being a mother and stepmother to four children. My life appeared rich and normal. I survived because I worked and loved intensely.

In 2001, I left Minneapolis to join my husband, who had a new job in D.C. I was excited about a chance to reinvent myself and finish a book I was writing. Instead, within a year, I plummeted. The ghost reappeared. My therapist asked if I was suicidal. I had an amazing marriage, healthy children, and everything to live for. I said, “Not yet, but I can see it from here.” Being a stoic Scandinavian prairie girl, I believed taking medicine was weak. Luckily, the doctor prevailed and medicine plus time and my loved ones saved me.

These are only some of the many tragic effects of the abuse on my life. No aspect of my life went untouched. For one thing, I was robbed of a healthy sense of my sexuality. I had never dated anyone but my first husband when I married him when I was 20. When I was pregnant at 27, I was too embarrassed to ride the bus because everyone would know I had had sex, and I was ashamed. Hard to believe, I know, but true.

I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys whom I loved and who never hurt me, and many of my dearest friends have been and continue to be men. I never assumed all men were bad, because I knew too many good ones. As an adult, both because of luck and caution, I have never been assaulted.

To his assailant, he was nothing

One of our sons was mugged at gunpoint when he was living in New York City. I don’t remember his exact words, but I do remember how he had the awful realization that to his assailant, he was nothing. His life simply didn’t matter. Whether a child is abused by a grandfather, or a 15-year-old girl is thrown onto a bed and silenced, or a college student is raped while she’s unconscious, or any of the other scenarios of assault play out, that knowledge that another human being sees you as nothing but an object to be used sears the soul.

On Thursday a woman who may be very much like me — a resilient woman who has created a life filled with the love of a husband and children and friends and work she believes in – is going to place herself in a merciless situation where her clothing, face, hair, makeup, gestures, inflections will all be scrutinized and judged and mocked. I cry imagining what she is enduring.

So those of you who don’t understand, try this. Picture your mother, grandmother, wife, sister, daughter, colleague, every woman you have ever known and think about the secrets they might harbor and don’t dare tell. When Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, be quiet and listen intently. She has a story many of us could tell that you need to hear.

Misti Snow lives in Falls Church, Virginia, with her husband and teaches writing to international students at a local college.

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