Recent discussions about the R. Kelly acquittal got me thinking, not about the case but my own experience as an abused child. I'll share it with you now. Get comfortable, and maybe have a box of tissues nearby like I did when I wrote this.
At the age of four, I was abused in nursery school. All of my three and four year old classmates were too.
Each weekday morning, the hungover, alcoholic husband of the school owner would pull up in front of our house in his old, brown station wagon. I'd climb in the back, joining a half-dozen or more other kids.
This was during the time before seatbelts existed and you could cram kids in a car like cattle, drive if you were only a little bit drunk, and no one would think a thing of it. My mother loved this door-to-door service because all she had to do was wave bye-bye and then she could go to work. Hell, back then I would have liked that set up too.
I looked forward to going to nursery school each morning. The owner ran her business in her three story row house, the kind that's been designated historic now, but she was rarely there; she must have had a day job.
Sometimes I'd see her 50-something looking husband working in the backyard, but he was otherwise invisible. A very large, unsmiling woman who prepared our breakfasts and hot lunches. For the most part, she was also invisible to my four year old eyes.
It was the summer of my fourth year of life when I learned what cruelty and madness was. The daycare owner hired two new sitters to replace the two who left.
These two bitches were tight friends with each other and couldn't have been a day over 16. They were as impatient, mean, humorless, and ignorant as they come. We discovered this quickly at storytelling time. We sat in a circle and chatted excitedly.
"Y'all shut up!," one screamed. "I'm tryin' to read to y'all! Now sit yo' black asses still and listen!"
Two or three of my class of a dozen giggled while the rest of just stared. My mama never talked like this. Neither did the previous two sitters.
"Shut up!", she yelled again.
"Yeah, or you're gonna get it!", her side-kick agreed.
We squirmed and a few of us whispered. You know how kids are.
This bitch stood up and entered the inside of our circle - and quickly and efficiently slapped every one of us in the face as hard as she could. Her hand hit more of my ear than my face, leaving it ringing and in pain. I remember thinking that I didn't enjoy the story because of this.
I'm getting teary-eyed now remembering it, and suddenly for the first time in my life, wonder if this is why, years ago and when my own children were small, that I tired so quickly whenever reading to them.
Anyway, the abuse got worse. Every now and then they would herd us into the basement. No, it wasn't a livable, finished basement. It had a concrete floor and two wooden benches along the plaster walls. Everything was painted in a depressing blue-gray, and bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling. There was a smaller room in the back that had no seating.
These teenage girls excelled at torture and behaved like monsters. They collaborated with one another, yelled at us and, screamed we had better behave or else. They didn't realize that they were so wired and hostile toward children - us - that it made us nervous. It was nearly impossible to act like they wanted us to - perpetually still, quiet, and obedient, as a friggin' group.
One of them would force several of us to the smaller basement room and make us stand on our toes with our arms stretched to the ceiling. This is a painful type of torture. They acted like they enjoyed it.
I never told my mother. I doubt that any of us did, at least not at first. I'm guessing that we thought it was normal, or at least the new normal for daycare.
One day, the girls snuck in a man - a grown fucking man in his early 20s - through the small basement door.
He had scissors, and they were large. Really large.
They lined us up on the benches and made us sit down. Bitch #1 yelled something like, "Y'all been bad. I'm tired of it. He's gonna deal with you."
She fingered a child.
"That one," she hissed.
"Come here!", the man commanded.
A little boy trembled as he walked forward. The man scooped him up.
He put the opened scissors around the child's arm and snarled, "I'm gonna cut off your arm for being bad!"
We watched in horror as our friend whimpered and begged, while our babysitters watched with approval.
"Okay," this new demon from hell said, "I'll give you another chance."
Three or four kids were directly traumatized like this. The rest of us were indirectly traumatized from watching. We were terrified. Still, I didn't tell.
On other days when he dropped by, this cruel man who thought it was funny threatened to cut off our legs instead of our arms. It was clear to my four year old eyes that he had a thing goin' on with one of the girls. The weeks dragged on and most of the times our punishments were restricted to the tip-toe torture.
We began to believe that this man wasn't really going to cut off any of our body parts. We got used to the abuse.
Then came the day my favorite playmate was pointed out. I'll call him Bobby. He was three year and half years old and a little smaller than I. After the sadist dropped him to the floor, Bobby ran back to our bench, gasping for air.
"Are you okay?", I whispered.
"He cut my shirt!", he cried softly. "Am I bleeding?"
Sure enough, Bobby's shirt sleeve was slightly cut. I didn't know what crazy was back then, but I knew this wasn't good.
I must have grit on that man or one of the babysitters. Bitch pointed to me. She spoke my name and uttered those three dreaded words, "She's been bad."
The man's lip curled. "Come here," he commanded me.
Terrified, I walked to him. No one had ever not walked to him. He scooped me up and placed those huge scissors around my skinny arm.
"I'm gonna cut it off," he hissed.
I screamed and wiggled and screamed some more. Funny, I can remember seeing his sudden discomfort at my panic. He dropped me and pushed me toward my seat, expecting me to run back to the bench.
I started a riot.
"Everybody run!!!", I screamed.
I bolted past him and headed for the stairs.
I could hear my screaming classmates. Half way up the steps, I looked back. A bunch of kids had run behind me and reached the foot of the steps.
This evil man and the two witches from hell were grabbing and throwing them to the floor like ragdolls so they couldn't escape.
I continued upward and pushed open the door. This door led to the small, narrow kitchen. The large cook was stirring something in a huge pot.
"There's a man down there and he's trying to cut off our arms!", I cried.
In hindsight, I can see this woman didn't like children. This is why she had always been so invisible to me. She did her job and otherwise avoided us.
She looked at me impassively, like she was thinking about this. I know she heard the screams below. She didn't want to get involved.
"Go back downstairs," she commanded coldly.
There was no safety in this house. None.
My memory of turning around to face going back down those stairs are in slow motion. It would be to return to hell. My four year old brain knew this, and then... it went... blank.
The human mind can only absorb so much abuse. I don't remember what punishment the child abusers gave to me when I descended back into their madness.
The story gets worse.
That evening the daycare owner's alcoholic husband escorted me to my front door. He usually just let me out of the car. He had a message to give my mother.
"She wet herself," he complained. "She's too big for that. You need to deal with that 'cause she stank up my car. I can't have that."
I watched him walk back to his station wagon crowded with very quiet children. Yes, we had learned our lesson of shut up.
My parents worked full-time day jobs. They needed good daycare for me from 7:30 AM until 5:30 PM. My mom was actually friends in a loosely defined way with the nursery school owner and trusted this woman. She crossed her arms and stared at me.
"You peed on yourself?", she demanded.
I looked down and mumbled something like, "I don't like that place anymore. I don't wanna to go back."
My usually calm and quiet mother did something she rarely did. She snapped. The pee wasn't the issue; her job security and perfect daycare arrangement was.
Off came her belt and she beat my ass.
Now that was a bad fucking day.
Sometime later and on another day when she was tucking me in at night, I told her about the man who was always saying he'll cut off our arms. My mother couldn't believe it, she wouldn't believe it. She had never heard of such a thing. Back then, they didn't have TV specials or news stories about child abuse. The phrase "child abuse" didn't even exist; it was coined in the '70s.
"You must have had a nightmare," she said.
She sounded concerned and looked under my bed.
"I don't see any Scissors Man," she insisted, "or Boogie Man either. You had a dream. It never happened. Okay?"
The sacrifices kids have to make to keep adults and their parents happy through denial is mind-boggling.
I don't recall much in the few weeks left of that summer. I think our captors took us on fewer trips to the basement though, and the crazy man never picked me up again. Or, if he did, my mind washed away his evil.
Maybe my mother wondered about my story. She made a decision to pack my suitcase and take me to Grandma's to live there on weekdays.
If my parents explained their decision to me, it was beyond my comprehension. I thought this exile was punishment for being bad and they didn't want me anymore.
I was so upset on the day I moved that I didn't even recognize my own grandmother. I felt fear... and cringed back into my mother, who gently nudged me into my new weekday home.
Grandma lived in a very nice, small, clean, three bedroom, two story house. I was given my own room, and two of her adult sons - my uncles - shared a bedroom. One was rarely there, the other more often there after his workday ended. They were all quiet people.
On my first day living with Grandma, she wondered why I picked over my dinner. I was skinny, and her way of showing love was through food. At one point she asked me to run to the basement downstairs to get something. I panicked and refused.
She gave a little smile. "Afraid of basements and the dark, huh?"
"It's okay," she said, smiling. "A lot of kids are."
She let it go.
That night I lay in bed in my tiny new room. It was comfortable, very clean, and I was very scared. I slept with the covers over my head, hoping this would protect me from any new danger. To this day, I love sleeping in a cool or cold room where I can turn my blankets into a cocoon.
After two days of barely eating, Grandma came up with a new strategy. She had me help bake an apple pie from scratch. It was delicious! Afterwards she helped me change into my swim suit, escorted me to her small, concrete backyard and sprayed me with the water hose.
I hopped and danced around with glee. Her face was full of contagious joy, and I fell in love with her.
Thank God, thank God, thank God, I knew in my heart that I was in a safe place.
Each morning at Grandma's, I watched I Love Lucy and other shows. I'd then help her cook and we'd eat and she'd spray me with water in the backyard. In the afternoons, I snuggled deeply into her soft, warm body, sucking my thumb and dozing off as she watched her soap operas. She took me to the park often.
Living with Grandma became the second new normal, and everything was normal - except for one thing. I was a very, very angry child and no one knew why, not even me.
In my room alone and playing with my toys, I began stabbing them with pencils. I'd beat them up without mercy. The settings were always 'classrooms'. The toy that was the teacher would beat and crush the children for being bad.
My Mom and Grandma didn't have clue to what that was all about, nor had the skills to even ask me about it. Sometimes they'd stare wordlessly at me as I'd batter my toys.
"Uh, play nice. You're too rough."
They might as well have been talking to themselves.
One day I asked Grandma for a sharp knife.
"What on earth do you want a knife for?", she asked.
"I found a dead rat outside, Grandma!", I said excitedly. "I want to cut it open and see what's inside!"
Grandma called Mama at work to deal with that shit.
"You need to come now," I heard her say on the phone.
The two whispered, sat me down, and they best they could say was that wanting to do this was un-girl like, strange and nasty. I was told rats have germs, and they explained what germs were.
I still wanted to see inside of it. They hid the rat.
In retrospect, I did have a scientific curiosity about the world. I still don't think incident was all that bad, but maybe it was a sign of something more ominous cooking in my soul that they could feel.
While outside playing at my parent's home one weekend, I found an orphan kitten.
I filled a trashcan with water and tried to drown it.
How does a child lose their soul? Their compassion for living things? If empathy is slipping away, can it be restored?
A neighbor in another yard saw me trying to drown this kitten. He was a nice middle-aged man whom I knew and respected. He said nothing, but his eyes said it all. He looked at me and what I was doing with enormous pain... and then he turned his back on me. I suddenly felt ashamed.
I looked at that poor, drowning kitten. I was amazed at it's struggle to keep me from killing it.
"You really wanna live, don't you?"
It was exhausted from my abuse and still trying to keep it's head above water. It mewed at me. It had been mewing all along, begging, pleading in it's own way, "please don't kill me."
Like my former captors, I had become too deaf to hear and too blind to see. I set it free, and with that simple action, freed a piece of my soul.
I saw it months later. It had grown a lot and wasn't stupid. He or she remembered me well, and would go to other kids but wouldn't come near me. My former abusers would get mad and retaliate when we acted that way. Having been a victim, I understood where the cat was coming from.
Then something new and terrible happened. My favorite of my two uncles was found dead, floating in the river. They say he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. As an adult I listened again to the stories, and I suspect he was pushed. He was a handsome easy-going man, had friends, girlfriends, and humor and wit.
Regardless of how he died, he was gone. Suicide is embarrassing to many families, and he was the second male in our family to go out that way. Murder was unprovable in his case, even though it was whispered he had a few enemies. No one talked about his death to me. I wasn't even allowed to attend the funeral.
I battered, stabbed and decapitated my toys with more furor than ever.
I got a new one that Christmas. I really liked it, and after chopping off it's head, was mad that the scotch tape wouldn't adhere to it, thus I couldn't tape it's head back on. Still, I worked out my anger and aggression on my toys.
The rest of my soul was finally saved by a butterfly.
I was alone in my bedroom at Grandma's. She was somewhere in the house, probably grieving. She'd become less attentive to me after her son's death. I don't recall where I found the butterfly, but I snuck it upstairs to my room to examine it.
It's wings were was so pretty. I pulled them off.
Suddenly, the butterfly wasn't pretty anymore, nor could it fly. It looked like a long, ugly bug.
It was an "oh my God what have I done" moment.
I desperately tried to put the wings back on, hoping they'd magically snap back on like a fastener on a garment. I watched the poor creature crawl under the dresser, never to be seen again. Looking at it's wings made me feel guilty. I threw them away.
Symbolically, I did to the butterfly what my former captors had threatened to do to me - cut off its arms.
By then I was five, and I had flipped from being an abused child to an abuser of living things who could not protect themselves. I didn't know this; I only knew that I didn't want to be mean or like the people who had hurt me and my little friends in nursery school.
I thank God for both of these animal cruelty experiences because they shook some sense in my head and were therapeutic, and back then, black folks didn't go to therapy unless they were so far gone they required a trip to the 'nut house'.
Years later at the age of 19 or 20, I was driving around the city in my raggedy used car. I stopped at a traffic light that stays red for a long time. I turned my head and saw Bobby - my lil' three year old nursery school friend - standing at a bus stop.
We recognized each other's faces instantly. I was surprised at how he turned out. He looked poor, carried a ladies purse and had that gay flavor to him. He also had the saddest eyes.
We stared at each other, unsmiling, in shock and in silence, for the longest time, our eyes never breaking contact.
The driver behind me blew his horn. My eyes shifted to the light, now green. I looked again at Bobby and we stared at each other another few moments, privately remembering the hell we went through in nursery school.
I drove away. I could have driven around the block and offered him a ride. I didn't. I don't think he would have wanted me too. We were still ashamed.
This is always unfortunate, because shame belongs to the perpetrators, but usually the victim carries that baggage.
I talked about that and all of the abuse we went through in therapy at age 21. I wept so hard that my therapist, an older Jewish woman who had lost family in the Holocaust, had tears in her eyes. I outstretched my arms and she pulled me in her lap and comforted me like a four year old child.
I loved this lady. She helped my damaged inner child heal.
The next step was to seriously confront my mother with why she never believed me.
She finally said, "You've been telling me this same story for so many years that it must be true. I'm sorry."
I wept and told her the story again, from beginning to end, again, and this time she listened differently. And for the first time, she cried - because she believed me.
God, I'm tearing up again as I write these words.
The accidental paths to healing that I stumbled across as a child, when I learned to value of all living things, came full circle. I became a social worker, and a few years later, a mental health therapist.
Guess who also got a job in the building as a therapist? The son of the nursery school owner.
I'll call him Carl. He's about a year older than I. Carl knew what was going on in that place because he arrived there each after kindergarten. He remembered me, too, although he would have never admitted it if I hadn't mentioned it.
The funny thing is, that like Bobby, Carl became a gay man, making me recall the belief of my late father that more homosexuals are made than born. Could Bobby have been a victim of more than the tip-toe and scissors torture, and suffered sexual abuse as well?
To my memory, Carl wasn't around when the Scissor Man came; as I said, he was in kindergarten, but given his mother's haphazard way of selecting child care providers and his dad's constant drunkenness, Lord only knows what situations he'd been placed in. Maybe he would have turned out gay anyway, but maybe not.
Carl wasn't about to discuss our common nightmarish experience at his Mama's house.
He avoided me like the plague from our first on-the-job encounter. As one of very few blacks in our building, you'd think we'd connect for an occasional lunch; I certainly offered this more than once. I'm sure we would have if we'd had normal childhood memories for that time period, but we didn't.
I was annoyed at first but gradually stopped holding it against him. What went on in that house of horrors was too painful, and he lived there with his alcoholic father and head-in-the-sand mother, watching his classmates go through lighter degrees of hell and adults not protecting any of us.
No wonder he became a mental health professional - growing up around insanity was his way of trying to figure out WTF happened, and like me, he chose a profession to help the walking wounded.
I'm thinking now about the emotionally sick and cruel man who made three and four year old children beg him, "Please don't cut off my arm."
Maybe as a child, there were no arms to protect him.
No loving Grandma.
Except... cruelty dished out to others designed to keep them from hugging, loving, being happy, and flying to the greatest heights of their potential.
I thank God for small miracles, and in the absence of these, the dedicated families, friends, and helping professionals who work to give back the psychological arms of those who lost them.