Is there something sensational about saying “my first?” I think we all cling onto a trauma we remember, because it gives us an explanation for how we are, and/or because it made us stronger. So we are creatures of sensation, hopefully not creatures of self-pity, or who recycle our experiences in a way that doesn’t help.
My idea of “firstness” has changed to include invisible firsts, things we don’t remember because we have blocked them out, or because we were too small, and I think a lot of people have these kinds of firsts.
I was on a family holiday in the Western Cape in 2012. Our house was full of early morning children making noise, endless gifts, and happiness to be all together again. My happiness was extreme, because I have always looked up to my brothers and sisters enormously, and only recently started to feel that I can connect with all of them, as though before I was behind a film of childhood and inhibition.
My brother was sitting in the lounge with me. I had the strange feeling that he, busying himself with something in his bags, had something to say. I held myself together, tried to juggle with the historical need to impress him, even in stillness, and ignored it. After all, I do have my own things to be getting on with.
He asked if we could go for a walk outside. I thought he might want to discuss an idea for the next step in his career – being at a crossroads, there are various options open to him.
When we were outside on the driveway, he said, “I wanted to talk to you about something that happened, in the past.” I felt a strange feeling of separation, bafflement, and knowledge. I interrupted, saying, “You mean the big fight with dad?” – referring to an enormous battle that I had had to listen to at age 8 or so which contained an anger I could not understand then. I jumped to this assumption though it was clearly not the thing he wanted to talk about, and this was just a delaying tactic coming from my gut.
He went on to explain that he wanted to talk about something that had happened between him (i.e. my brother) and me. Just hearing that, was enough to tell me that it had been a sexual encounter of some sort: this dawned, like a thing I had always known and never suspected. He asked whether there was anything unresolved for me, about this past encounter between us, that I might want to talk about. I explained I had no memory of it at all.
As he spoke I got the sense from him it had been just a once-off thing, though I did not question him closely. He said he had been about 12 and I was about 5 or 6. He had used the intimacy we shared, and my trust in him, and had abused it. I didn’t ask him for specifics so did not find out exactly what happened. My whole mind expanded to take in the bushes we were passing, the stones we were walking over, and all the years and tiny events this explained. I thought out loud that he had been living with this all these years and that it must have been terrible, and he said he had lately started to wonder if it had left scars for me. Much of the shame in his adult behaviour started to fall into place as more clearly understandable. And my idea that “this kind of thing” does not happen to or in my family, broke down like so much dust. With it went any kind of horror this could have held for me. I knew my family was strong enough to engage with this issue (even if it just remained between him and me) and understand this as natural, and possible, and also as a damaging thing.
For many reasons, I know it was not one of the more straightforward “doctor doctor” plays that can be acted out between siblings or friends in childhood. It must have been loaded with his frustrations and resentments he was suffering at the time. That was borne out by the impact the experience did have on me. I understand now why I learned so early to masturbate; why, when I got to the age of 11 or 12, I engaged in similar – coercive but not abusive – sexual play with slightly younger children of about 8 or 9 which I have always felt terrible about. I understand why being physically close to just about anyone, even sitting next to them on the bus, can be embarassingly sexualised for me. I understand the feeling of physical and sexual distrust I felt towards this same brother in my teens. I suspect this experience might also be the reason why, when having an interaction one-on-one with anyone or in a confined space, I at times get a strange feeling of disassociation, an urge to flight.
The night that followed was a strange one, where I went down to the bedrock, and looked at it, emotionally speaking. I thought I saw something small sitting on it, a potential for weakness and passivity down there that I wanted to fight back against in every fretful and determined way that I could. I felt, wrongly or rightly, that the weakness had been left to me through this experience that I did not even remember. I thought about what emotional damage means, and how if the circumstances had been just a little bit different – if he were meaner, if my family were a bit different, if he had been someone older with another set of intentions instead of just a scared, powerless, curious 12 year old boy, how different and harder my life would have been. I gained a lot of respect for people who have such a challenging road to tread, to recover and to forgive an abuser.
Several other family revelations followed that holiday – for some reason, it was time to air the dirty laundry. I was tired by the end, and this issue had taken a back seat in my mind. But it was important, I feel he gave me the key to my own life in a way, by telling me.
It also made me think about what it means to be a person and to be as complex as we are: that these early experiences and many others can leave us with special defenses, mental loops, or ways we cling to control, like little animals biting our own tails for comfort. The loops return us to ourselves, and can look like madness or eccentricity to the rest of the world. The things we go through can leave us with sensitivity to others, sometimes, and intensity that ratchets up and down the scale. And I wouldn’t give that up.