The Matchbook Diaries

Last Rape and First Recall

Two years after my mother died, I felt compelled to buy and to watch several seasons of the old TV show NYPD Blue.  I do not watch TV, but the compulsion was strong to do this.  So while I did my design work, I vaguely watched the shows.  I wasn’t sure there was much benefit to the constant rapes and murders I was exposing myself to, and yet I plodded on.  I know the process of redemption well enough to know when my heart is leading.   I got to the scene where the main character Diane remembers that she is an incest victim.  I stood up, suddenly, from my chair, like I’d been punched in the stomach.

The alarm coursing through my body was a palpable, pulsing frenzy.  Oh my God.  Oh my God.  That day I brought my right hand involuntarily towards my throat, bending my elbow, to clutch my neck, stifling my gasp.  For the following 12 months, my hand compulsively clutched my throat, even as I worked on matchbook designs.  My shoulder eventually froze in that position, and required a shot of steroids directly into that joint.

That day, I chose to remember a night I’ve seen in my waking and half awake visions all my life.  I’m standing in a darkened hallway looking into a lit room.  I’m wearing a flannel nightgown.  That vision, of me on the lit threshold of my mother’s bedroom stained my psyche because it was the last night my mother raped me.  I was prepubescent, still, at 12 and change, but I had boys interested in me.  My mother told me I was a whore and hit me with a telephone book.

This is Bernie, who saves the bottle caps from his Banana Beer stall in Sumbawanga, Tanzania. I use his caps to tile my porch.

My final year in New York my mother carried on a relationship with a man named Michael who owned a limo company in Manhattan.  We did not see him much, but he struck me as a dangerous man, a possibly connected man.  My mother had many, many male lovers, so I did not think anything particular about this one.  I do recall, though, that they spoke of marriage, and were, perhaps, planning to become engaged.

That night, the night of the flannel gown, I walked in on my mother having oral sex with Michael.  Instead of covering up her pedophilia, as she had with all the other men, my mother took me into the bedroom and showed her boyfriend how she used me as a sex toy.  I was raped there by my mother in the presence of that man.   I do not know if Michael participated, but he did not object.

The following morning Michael was overcome with cataclysmic rage.  He tore my mother’s jewelry apart with his bare hands.  The physical violence escalated until we were running away from him inside our house and then outside.  He picked up a very large log outside and was trying to kill my mother with the log.  He bashed in the hull of a boat that was stored beside our house.  My mother flung me into the station wagon and roared backwards out of our driveway just as he was running after us with the log in his hands.  I do not know when we returned home.  I never saw Michael again.  For months after that our home was vandalized – someone came in and wrecked it repeatedly.  Then our dog Lucy was attacked.  Someone tied Lucy, with an ice pick stuck in her chest, to our front door.

My showing up at my mother’s bedroom door was my job.  I would often already be in her bed, preparing to sleep, (rarely was I allowed to get sleepy in my room) and just as my mind let go, and the bliss of unconsciousness overtook me, she would gather me up gently and then, always with the lights on, strip me naked in her bed.  I could not see any focus in her eyes.  I’m sure she must have seen the abject terror in mine, though.  The rape would always begin with tender, French kisses, but that foreplay was quite short as my mom was always eager to get into her routine.

One of the recurring strange thoughts that I used to not be able to explain, a habit that has since died, was one of suggestion.  I’d be engaged in some activity from cooking to socializing, and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, I’d think, “What if I just throw this knife and stab that woman in the stomach?”  or, “What if I just smash this baby/animal/item onto the floor?”  These apparently personally manufactured thoughts of totally unpredictable violence filled me with shame.  I do not have them anymore.   It is understandable, now, because the lens through which I see has been reoriented.

The monologue of my mother’s words during the torture sessions bled through my thoughts years before I remembered, sort of how when you overplay an 8 track cassette, you wind up hearing the music from several songs at once.  The words below my consciousness kept surfacing for me for years, pressing though, but in pieces, like a bad broadcast.  Then, all of a sudden, that day, I heard the whole script verbatim.

The night I first remembered I was silent; I had no voice at all.  I sat on the floor in the bathroom shaking my head compulsively.  I contemplate these things but they are not thinkable, and I shake my head, and then, in a moment, I try once again to reason with the memory only to shake my head.  For hours, many nights a week, I sit on the ground in the bathroom after my son and husband are asleep, and I shake my head compulsively, then I cry, and usually I try really hard to stop shaking my head, even placing my hands on my head to force it to stop.

If I know I’m going to wail I go downstairs to the kitchen so no one can hear me.  Like instinctively trying to avoid vomiting, I try to avoid crying, but in the end I submit to it.  The terror of these events remains fresh and breathtaking.  I know what hunts me now.  I was helpless when it happened to me, but I am not helpless now.

I saw dominoes as a child as the one in the back was tipped, tripping the entire chain to collapse.  That successive pushing image has been a driving image for me.  I am going to be the domino that doesn’t fall.  I have been driven all my life by the idea that I will not submit to that momentum, the chain reaction of evil.  I assume that someone did a terrible thing to my mother, and, before her, someone in the previous generation was a victim too, it doesn’t matter, my mother continued the momentum. My goal – to absorb the kick from behind and not pay it forward.  The momentum from all those other evils, when it assaults me from behind – I want to absorb that impact, and not shove the one in front of me.

The force I felt that day in Tanzania when I remembered was literally breathtaking.

The night my mother got caught raping me was the last night she did it.  After that, within a few months, she sent me away to live with my father in order to protect herself from the wrath of Michael.  I think she believed that if she did not stop and send me away Michael would kill her.  As my mother was dying, a few weeks after I’d saved her in New York, I asked her if she had regrets.  She told me that her biggest regret was losing Michael.