February 2009


Tonight, as everyone knows, is the Oscars ceremony. I have to admit that I did not see many of the movies, not because of time, but because I cannot watch films that involve some kind of trauma. It’s not an anti-violence thing with me. I used to see all kinds of movies.

But within the last 10 years, something inside me started reacting to scenes in which characters were emotionally or physically abused. I’d start shaking. I’d become extremely anxious. I’d sit in the darkness feeling as if smothered. At first, I tried to ride out the scenes, covering my eyes, putting my hands over my ears. Sometimes that strategy worked. Barely.

That defense failed me when I saw the excellent movie “Girls Don’t Cry.” The movie was well done-acting, directing, etc. I watched from beginning to end, trying to appreciate its artistry. The movie’s impact hit me suddenly–BAM!–when I got into my car and started driving. I couldn’t make it out of the parking lot. I pulled over and fell apart. My husband was with me, thank goodness, to hold me. I sobbed uncontrollably. My body trembled. It was as if I had experienced all the trauma in that movie. I knew that trauma–not the exact same kind-but just the feeling of it all. My mind and body had memories and responded automatically.

In subsequent movies that had any kind of emotional or physical trauma, I’d bolt from the theater mid scene, from darkness into the bright fluorescent light. To escape that claustrophobic atmosphere, to breathe, to make it stop. My husband would find me on a bench in the theater lobby, trying to calm down.

I’ve given up seeing such movies. I can’t even watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” any more. The last time I did, I threw up half way through. That was several years ago. In December, a New York Times writer explained the reason perfectly in the aptly titled “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? It’s a Miserable Life!” Wendell James wrote,

“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.” [Check out New York Times critic A. O. Scott’s take in this video.]

Now my husband and I joke about the fact that this Christmas classic made me vomit–and not because it’s sappy. But there you have it.

At least, I understand my limits now. Some movies are obvious ones to avoid. “The Wrestler?” Nope. “Slumdog Millionaire?” I wanted to see it until I found out about the flashbacks showing child beatings. “Frost/Nixon?” Yes, I love movies about politics. Then there was the movie “Doubt.”

As I wrote in a previous post, I was on the fence about seeing it for several reasons. I was intrigued because I had attended Catholic schools in New York City during the time period the movie takes place. The sexual abuse part was stopping me. After reading a friend’s review at her blog, Bagel and A Movie, I thought, “I can handle this one.” We finally saw it last Sunday.

I found the film moving and absorbing. I recognized instantly the Sr. Aloysius type and profoundly felt the innocence and tender spirit in the nun Amy Adams portrayed. What I loved most was that the movie was cerebral and explored what it means to be human, what it means to believe, what it means to doubt. You leave the movie not knowing for sure whether the priest sexually abused the child.

Some people in the audience, however, thought they knew. In fact, they arrived with that certainty. Their minds were made up: The priest is guilty. In scenes with the priest, played so well by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, audience members hissed and tsk-tsked. At times, their sounds made hearing the dialogue difficult. Granted, I was watching the movie in a theater in a suburb of Boston, practically ground zero for the clergy sex abuse scandals  (chronicled by the Boston Globe in a series of articles that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003).

Yet, they didn’t respond similarly whenever Sr. Aloysius (Meryl Streep) lashed out, punished, mistreated, and spoke with such venom toward the children–not to mention her behavior the priest, her fellow nuns and a student’s mother. She showed no empathy, no tolerance. She abused those children physically and emotionally.

I knew so well how those kids felt. I was one of those children in boarding school. Yet, for some reason, this one time I could watch the entire movie, though I did flinch a lot. Perhaps I was too distracted by the behavior of the audience.

What I did leave with was a reminder that although people understand the trauma and wrongness of sexually and physically abusing children, some fail to see that emotional abuse can be just as traumatic.

I’ve struggled for years doubting that I had suffered emotional abuse in boarding school and elsewhere because I lacked bruises, fractured bones, some STD or other physical evidence. I have no physical scars. Unlike Maria and others who were my fellow boarders, I don’t remember being hit by the nun overseeing the dorm. But the emotional abuse I endured was very real and is the reason that after all these years I relive it when I see it happening on the big screen.

I’ve thought a lot about those people in the audience and have felt tremendous compassion for those who have suffered from sexual or other physical abuse during childhood. Sometimes, though, I need to be reminded of the validity of my own emotional scars.

Today, as I considered how I’d approach writing about this very personal topic, I turned to the Childhood Welfare Information Gateway, a federal government clearinghouse for information on childhood trauma. There, on my screen, I read these words and felt oddly comforted:

“Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child.

“Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms are identified. Abandonment is now defined in many States as a form of neglect. In general, a child is considered to be abandoned when the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in circumstances where the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time.”

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Doll in JumperEarlier this week, I received an e-mail from a woman named Maria, who was a boarder about four years before I was. (To protect her privacy, I am not including her last name. In her note, she gave me permission to reprint it.) Since I started this blog, I have been searching online for women who had boarded at this school and contacted her through a social media site. As with any person who’s endured trauma and abandonment as a kid, I wanted to hear others’ stories, less out of a need for confirmation, more out of a need to connect with others and to give our experience a voice. I had buried those years for so long. I write for a living, and finally feel driven to tell this story.

As I read her e-mail, I had such a strong visceral reaction. I felt shaky and thought I would get sick. Her words brought back the terror and pain. For the rest of the day, I grieved for her as a little girl, the other little girls and, of course, myself. Her e-mail felt that powerful and so familiar, even the part about Ed Sullivan and the collie:

“I read your blog and I guess I was surprised but also kind of felt confirmed after all these years of bad memories. I don’t know why, but I never realized that there would be others that would have felt the same as I did. I think I always thought it must have been me. I know that there were older girls there and I remember them laughing and having a good time. For some reason I think of this in some sort of locker room – is that familiar at all?

“I hated the place and the memories that most stand out in my mind are of Sr. [X]. She was horrible – she must’ve been just absolutely hateful inside and took it out on the kids. But of course, through the eyes of a child, you always think it’s just you.

“One particular vivid memory is of her holding me just off the floor by my arm while she was beating me, all because my hair got wet on a day that we were not supposed to wash our hair. Do you remember that Thursday was hair washing day? (It may have been different when you were there.) Well, my shower cap had a tear in it and my hair got a little wet. So, I’m a little kid and she’s this huge black hulking figure (black habit) and she’s dangling me by my arm while she’s hitting me and yelling. I can still almost see the twisted expression on her face. I remember the absolute terror – I don’t know how she got away with it. I don’t remember any other nun doing anything to the kids but maybe I didn’t see it.

“Another time I was in bed (I remember the dormitory with 2 rows of beds), and the 2 girls on either side of me were talking and then got out of bed. Well, Sr. [X] came up and let us all have it even though I pleaded with her that I didn’t do anything. I also remember being punished or hit for not eating all the food on my plate – you know kids and string beans. Does yucky macaroni and cheese ring a bell? And getting hit for throwing up after eating something I didn’t like. Just normal kid stuff.

“My mom took me out after 6 months because of the bruises on my body. She says she couldn’t figure out what was happening and that I never complained. Scared I guess. So she took me to the doctor who she says looked at her as if she were a child abuser. Now this is through the memory of my 76 year old mom, so I don’t really know what to say. I spoke to her the other day about this again, because I’ve never really been sure why I was there. She tells me she had to work, but she was married and there was a Catholic elementary school right across the street. I suppose times were different and she tells me she thought she was sending me to a good school.

“I do know that I could never send my daughter away – she’s going to college in September and I’m having a hard enough time with that. But if the discussion goes too far with my mom, she’ll feel as if I’m accusing her and I don’t want to go there. But I do think about it sometimes.

“I do have a good memory of watching the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday nights. And also, there was a dog – a Collie. One of the nuns would hold up her fingers, and the dog would bark according to how many fingers she held up. You can use any of this on your blog if you like.

“I wonder if Sr. [X] is still alive. I looked on the St. John’s website – there’s an area that names nuns from the past but I didn’t see her name.  I think I would like confront her, although the years of growing up and thinking of nuns as next to God might make that difficult for me to do. I’m an RN, and many years ago I had a nun as a patient. She was having knee surgery and I had to place a tourniquet cuff high on her thigh in preparation for the surgery. The thought of touching her in such a personal manner terrified me and I apologized to her. That reverence for nuns is so ingrained in us as children growing up Catholic.

“Sorry this is so long. I have really strong memories of that place – even as a 53 year old, I still cringe when I think of it.”

~ Maria, February 9, 2009

Thank you, Maria, for taking the time to write of your experience and letting me share it with others on my blog. I’m sure that your honesty will touch many. (P.S. The nun, now elderly, is still alive. She’s long since retired–the boarding school shut down in 1972 or so.)

In a previous post, I wrote of the decreasing number of Catholic schools in the US. But perhaps one solution might help to continue the educational standards set at these schools. “Mayor and Bishop Propose a Plan to Save Schools,” in The New York Times, Feb.  8, 2009, provides details of  a proposal to turn four Catholic schools in Brooklyn into charter schools. According to the Times, “It would be the first time such a plan was undertaken in New York and could serve as a model for converting other Catholic and private schools.”

I’ll be interested to see how this works. The proposal is in its early stages, with many decisions, etc., to be made. The best outcome would be one that ensures the best education for the children.

Bath time marked the start of the evening during my summer  with my aunt and uncle. In Puerto Rico, most people shower before dinner. (I’ve always thought that savvy burglars could take this opportunity to slip in and out of houses all over the island, while everyone was showering.) You’d wash off the day’s sweat and put on a clean dress. Refreshed, you’d sit down to eat.

Most times, my aunt bathed me. I was barely six years old. Each late afternoon, I experienced a child’s version of the Psycho shower.

In the bathroom’s small space, largatijos—lizards—lurked, just as they did throughout the house. You had to share, and I didn’t want to.

Largatijos were like the cockroaches in our Manhattan apartment, only not nocturnal. At least roaches stayed in the kitchen. These three-inch green-brown largatijos, with slender bodies, appear quietly everywhere. These creatures stand as if frozen on the tile wall for long periods. Eyes wide open. No blinking. Silent. When he moves, he scampers and slithers. Such stealth. Such quickness. One moment he’s on the wall, the next by the door. Some might slip into the shower drain. Others hang out on the shower curtain or pole looking down at me. One might pop out of the medicine cabinet or from behind the toilet tank. Some settled into the folds of towels. Or on the soap, the faucet handle, the showerhead, toilet paper roll. Anywhere. I feared one would jump on me.

But more harrowing still was my aunt’s washing method. She scoured my skin like she did the kitchen floor. The washcloth felt like sandpaper. When washing my hair, she scraped my scalp raw with her nails. Shampoo burned my eyes. I would run out of the bathroom mid-wash, crying, screaming, in pain. Sometimes she’d catch my arm or hair before I fled and yanked me back into the shower. She scrubbed harder, now furious with me. I had no one to rescue me.

After several evenings of this, she opted for bribery. Before my shower, Titi Grace led me to her china cabinet in the dining room. On the shelf behind the sliding glass door, she placed a quarter. If I stood still—no whimpering, no fleeing—that quarter was mine. Fearing her wrath, I bit my lip and endured the pain. For twenty-five cents, I was hers.

1965 Quarters

1965 Quarters