It is still dark when I leave the house, bags and rolling cart full of teaching materials stacked up by the door. I let the silence of the road and the slowly lightening landscape pull me into the waking world, coffee clasped tight in one hand, while the other hand steers. I drive for an hour and forty-five minutes up I-5, arriving in Redding with twenty minutes to spare.
I will teach teachers all day at the county office, clicking around in low heels and doing my best impression of what I think a charismatic person does—points excitedly, tells engaging pseudo-personal stories, praises others for their contributions. At the end of the day, I sit for a second and read through the evaluations. Powerful learning. Best professional development I’ve attended. Could’ve provided more snacks.
I gather up all the stray papers, binders, and trash and haul the load back out to my Honda with a dent in the front. I will never get this dent fixed. I don’t care about a pristine car and my daughter says it’s how she recognizes our vehicle in a crowded parking lot. I slip my shoes off and put on some sneakers over my tights. Rather than turn left out of the parking lot toward home, I turn right. I’ve been thinking about that right turn all day.
Just half a mile from here is a white, geometric building that now houses an insurance agency. It’s changed faces many times over the years. Twenty years ago it was a mental health facility for youth. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t stop cutting my arms and dreaming about death. My mother brought me here hoping to save my life.
* * *
Randy was there the night of my intake. I was snowy-eyed and limp. It was the apex of late June heat, but Mom and I stopped at the outlet stores on our way and I picked out a Stanford sweatshirt. I needed long sleeves because I didn’t want them to see my arms. They all had the manila file, but I still didn’t. Randy brought me up from the blinding lobby, three floors to the Adolescent Ward. He put my suitcase on the bed and pulled out every item—clothes, shoes, toiletries, books, stationary—unzipping and unfolding each object and organizing them in piles.
Being brought to the Hilltop Care Center meant that I was beyond trying to look like things were okay. I relented my control, which I had believed was utter and complete. In Randy’s presence, I cried inexplicably. I asked him questions that others didn’t and requested that he pray with me in my room. He hugged me hard, which was the payoff. He had five kids, a wife, and smelled like Ivory soap. There was a tidiness about him that permeated everything—his collared shirt, high-waisted jeans, clean white sneakers, jet-black hair clipped short over his ears.
Twenty years ago it was a mental health facility for youth. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t stop cutting my arms and dreaming about death. My mother brought me here hoping to save my life.He had control, so I felt I didn’t have to when in his presence.
Randy noticed the small cross I wore, gave me a little book of biblical meditations and wrote a message on the inside cover: What occurs on this earth by the hands of men means little in the eyes of our Eternal Father. He loves you, Sarah. I read the inscription again and again, blurring the words to say, “I love you,” which is what I wanted desperately to hear from him. I wanted him to take me home with him at the end of his shift and plunk me down at that table of seven.
He was one man in a cluster of men that fit a particular profile: Christian, a father, conservative, a caregiving rescuer. These men made me cry easily. I needed their physical touch in a way that was a bottomless asking.
At the HCC, our days were composed of a rigid schedule that started at six a.m. The first few days there I felt half-dead, either from waking early or the myriad pills I swallowed from a white paper cup. At home, I had been sleeping twenty hours a day, spending my brief waking hours in the middle of the night, when the house was dark and silent.
* * *
Rose, my roommate, had the same need that I did. She had targeted the male nurse, Greg, who was good-looking, like Huey Lewis, but only had one arm. She hung around the front desk long after everyone had retired to their rooms for Free Time. Joking, she would dance around in front of him, her cut sweatshirt hanging down on one side, showing the hint of tattoo just below the raw fabric. Her makeup was always perfect. She filled our room with a musky, womanly scent.
We bonded quickly, in part, because we were both survivors of sexual abuse. “Sister,” she would start each sentence directed at me, “My sister, Sarah.” I loved my little brother, but I had always had a deep desire for an older sister. I often developed sibling crushes on my friends’, jealous of the shared family knowledge, the way one launched out into the world like a pilot fish for the other to follow. Rose was an unexpected, yet perfect companion—mouthy to my quiet, angry rather than depressed, tan fleshy arms against my covered, broken skin.
Her daddy was a biker. During group family therapy, I remember the way she clung to his large, calloused hands and crumbled inside the circle his arms made for her. He was a fortress built of leather, ink, facial hair and buckles, yet he cried when she cried.
In my adulthood, many people have commended me for surviving the early parts of my life. You could’ve been a drug addict, they say, a prostitute, and while I think there are a hundred other possibilities in between those extremes, I always think of Rose. She was a prostitute. She was trading time from the California Youth Authority and could lessen her punishment for getting through the levels of the HCC. I wonder about the shape of her story, whom she ended up loving, if she was able to discover a life in which she didn’t have to sell her body to survive.
I wonder if she would remember me now and if she did, would she still call me “Sister”?
* * *
Each time we transitioned to a new activity, I had to meet another adult. They liked me. I wasn’t belligerent or acting out. In the schoolroom I read past the passages that were assigned and wrote long responses. I immediately earned enough points to be taken out to pizza for lunch, but couldn’t until I had reached the second level. There wasn’t a set graduation from the program, or really a stated objective we were told to accomplish. Most were pushed out of the program as soon as their insurance stopped paying, which, on the average, was two weeks. It was more like they had to provide us some system to work through, a measurement of “progress.” Some kids were there for eating disorders, others for violent episodes. I was there for what they labeled as “Major Depression” and “Suicidal Ideation.”
Their guiding principle for getting better seemed to be based on proximity—that closeness to the suffering and eventual improvement of others would cause you to follow. It worked both ways. Sometimes there would be a vacuum of despair, everyone leap frogging off the person who just shared, anteing the trauma like tokens of anguish. Other times, you would weep at the earnest confession that another was, in fact, feeling better. I hope, they would admit hesitantly, as if they would be kicked out of the sacred circle for wanting to live.
My therapist, Jamie, had the bluest eyes I had ever witnessed in another human. Mt. Shasta loomed huge out the window of her office and the jagged powdered peaks cut a sky to match them.
Rose was an unexpected, yet perfect companion—mouthy to my quiet, angry rather than depressed, tan fleshy arms against my covered, broken skin.Most of the time, Shasta looked like a postcard with its pristine and ancient presence held in that small frame, but once in a while, I would use it as an imaginative space, a placeholder for the life I would one day have. Maybe I would be a woman who hikes, or one who meditates, as I’d heard the staff talking about both. The native people of the area saw it as the center of creation, a stepping stone for the Great Spirit ascending from heaven.
Conversations around ideas of “spirit” were mostly limited to a Judeo-Christian framework. Jamie and the other staff believed that I could handle adult texts and would take me to the storage room filled with self-help books of every kind. I would go back to my room, arms full, and arrange them on the small desk in my room. Of all the books they offered on spirituality and wellness, the ones I chose were about surviving sexual abuse. And out of all the words in those books, I was interested most in the gritty, detailed descriptions of “what happened.”
There’s a way in which suffering becomes quantified, especially when first identifying it as your own. A need emerges to press your experience into a discernable shape, to measure it next to other shapes, and feel the contraction or expansion of that. When I was fourteen, it seemed everyone had been abused by somebody else. Soon after my father went to prison, he began having flashbacks of an older neighborhood boy. He was discovering the shape of his wounds, too.
Jamie put The Story of a Soul in my hands, the autobiographical writings of Saint Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese died at twenty-four and lived her short life certain that she was meant for service to God. She believed in the power of small sacrifice, in gestures that lift those around you. Those that have studied her note the potential for a kind of mania, of hysteria and oversensitivity. Her mother died of breast cancer when Therese was very young, which triggered what could be characterized as a breakdown, in a strand of many. What cured these hysterical occurrences were her signs received from Christ. She found respite in prayer. She said, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
It was the simplicity of her message that anchored me. She didn’t deny suffering and was still able to find comfort, to persist into what her mind had first told her was unlivable.
* * *
One of the beliefs I held during this time was that I was a pervert magnet. I have a fragmented memory of being very small and holding my mother’s hand as we walked around the downtown plaza of my hometown. As we walked, two men, twins, walked in our direction. They were like living Ken dolls—wavy blonde hair, well-dressed, tan—and my mother knew them. She began to chat with them and one crouched down, trying to engage with me. I lost it. I started crying, screeching, pawing at my mom to pick me up. She told me years later that she was shocked by my response. I had never done such a thing and was usually such a placid child.
Many years later, we read in the newspaper that the twins were brought up on charges of sexually assaulting their own invalid mother. They had thousands of photographs of her nude, in various positions, with them, without them.
“They were always so nice,” my mother commented. She had met them at a time when she was very involved with church and was excessively kind, even when she didn’t have to be. And then she remembered that time I cried at the sight of them. The way I clung to her and squeezed my eyes shut, so they would stop trying to make me see them.
Did I know they were deviants, that somewhere in the perfect curl of their smiles, there was a dark damaged yearning? Maybe I was a sensor, rather than a magnet.
But then what of Mr. Bell, my seventh-grade Science teacher whom people whispered about? He was suspect of lingering too long with female students after school, letting his hand rest on their shoulders, complimented them on their beauty, offered to drive them home. I volunteered to stay after. I felt luminous in his presence, as if I could drown in the light he doled out with each hug, pat on the back. I also felt drawn by his hesitation. He knew what people said about him. Whether he was what they said or not, I wanted to live in his classroom, yet he would make me go home after an hour.
He came to my house to visit me after everyone had found out what my father had done. He was the only teacher who did. I can still see him sitting on the dark blue floral couch in our living room, his checked shirt buttoned all the way up, his ankles crossed in front of him. It’s a terrible thing, he confirmed, but you will be okay. You will have a good life.
Years later, I was in the lingerie section of a department store browsing for something sexy to wear for my boyfriend. I was just out of high school and trying out my new adult identity, attempting to perform something—the wiles of a woman, someone who is capable of seduction.
I was holding a black and grey lace teddy against my body and looked up to see Mr. Bell approaching from the Housewares section. I blushed at his arrival, letting the garment sag against my leg. He looked just the way he always had—grey-haired and distinguished, like Sean Connery. We made small talk. I told him I was registered to take classes at the community college.
We hugged goodbye, transported by years and the shared knowledge of secrets and the power of what people say. He leaned in and whispered in my ear, “Take a picture of yourself in that and send me a copy.”
* * *
At Hilltop, it was easy to get lulled into familiarity. A strict schedule offers someone who is untethered a sense of purpose. Even if that compulsion, what one might call will, was merely the tiny agreement to walk to the Art Therapy room. I loved that room. Wall-to-wall shelves with every craft supply you could think of. For weeks, I worked on a pine box, creating a mosaic on the top surface that was white with a blue cross. I was making it for John, a family friend who had become a kind of father figure.
John was a good man. Maybe the prototype for all of those who came after him. He was conservative, hardworking, and devoted to his family. His wife, Jennifer, was the first person whom I told about the abuse. She was my youth group leader at church.
I felt luminous in his presence, as if I could drown in the light he doled out with each hug, pat on the back. I also felt drawn by his hesitation.In the chaos after everyone found out, after the police had left, after my father had gone, Jennifer stayed close to our family. She picked my brother and me up from school, something my father had always done. She spent hours listening to me, letting me cry, making us dinner. She told me that when she told John what had happened to me, he cried. I had known them both from the after-part of church on Sundays, when everyone was in clusters chatting and kids and teenagers chased each other around the lawn. He had always teased me.
That he cried made me feel something I had never experienced before. I felt protected. Maybe valued? Loved? It was not sexual, though there was some part of me that was compelled to make it that. The truth is that I didn’t know what to do with a healthy presentation of genuine care.
But I wanted his love and affection so badly that I would work myself into a fit—sit, thinking about my father, his hands, the smell of his hair, set with grease and a metallic dust from the garage. I would allow myself into the worst thoughts. The darkened hallway. His loafers, softly crossing the house to my bedroom. And then I’d be crying. John would come and take my hand, lead me into their room, sit down in his recliner and let me sink into his lap, resting my face on the muscled edge between his shoulder and neck.
I step away from that image now and witness my thirteen-year-old self being rocked by a thirty-year-old. I am thankful that someone, a grown man who was intrinsically good, would offer that kind of closeness to me. Yet, I am also undone by the nearness, the potential harm that could’ve occurred if he had been otherwise.
It was almost impossible to get that kind of contact in the hospital. Hans, a permanently red-faced, red-haired boy, would go on periodic rampages. The kind of screaming that should be reserved for the actual act of murder, the kind that alerted the body to run and get as far away from whatever animal is in such exquisite pain and hide. A staff member would draw some kind of boundary—no more foosball, something fairly benign and you would first see his fists form, like small hearts, flooded with pulse and power. He would spin into a blur of punches. Then he would shoot like a bullet down the hallway, feet pounding the soft carpet after him. The first one to him would wrap him up in their arms, his legs striking for any surface, sweeping through the air—his chaos something so large his small body could not contain it.
Once a week, a man would come to sit with us cross-legged in the group meeting room and play us songs on his guitar. There would be a stir in the group energy when he would arrive, his long, salt-and-pepper hair tied back by a leather string, the black guitar case a new intruding shape on our monochrome, strapped-down environment.
He wrote his own songs, most of them about having been redeemed by Jesus. He had a low vibrato and I would sit in the circle and let tears go. Hans was also affected in this way. He would close his eyes, his freckled cheeks flushed with something that looked like pleasure, like peace.
* * *
Then, Billy came through the door in ropes. His parents told him they were going to visit family and when he agreed, they tied him up, shoved him in the car, and drove straight to HCC. We were circled up in our evening group when he arrived, but I could see him through the cracked door. His face was dark with rage. He looked like he could destroy us all. I knew if given the chance, I would let him.
There are two opposing male archetypes that have populated my life. One is the Randy, the John—men that would be described as gentle, loyal, trustworthy, kind. They are the Good Men.
Then there is the other army. The young men who had swallowed a bomb at birth, those who were ignited in their injury and were bent on loving women as a kind of revenge. I could sniff them out, rouse them from their disaffected sleep, and get them to turn their blistering gaze on me. Some of my men were both: older ones who had grown out of a rebellious youth to become righteous, younger ones who looked like disciples from the exterior, but seethed with some caustic potential. No one is just one thing, but for many years, it felt like that.
Billy was sullen, non-verbal and impervious to the tactics of even the most engaging staff. In our many circles, he sat low in a chair, arms crossed. The only time I saw him behave differently was during gym. We were encouraged, but not forced, to spend an hour a day engaged in physical activity. Most of the girls sat with their backs against the wall watching the boys play basketball. I loved basketball, but had spent my gym time each day in the row of girls. It was easier to conform. And I was a little bit afraid to seem okay. I worried that if I indicated enthusiasm toward any given thing, they would take note, and make me leave.
I had a boyfriend at home.
I am thankful that someone, a grown man who was intrinsically good, would offer that kind of closeness to me. Yet, I am also undone by the nearness, the potential harm that could’ve occurred if he had been otherwise.He was Jennifer and John’s foster son. At different times, they would have between two and six teenage foster boys in their home, but Tim was permanent. Jennifer would pick us all up from school. They had a freezer full of Homerun pies and we would take turns at the microwave warming them up. Mostly they were hot as molten lava, but we would blow and bite, blow and bite, while crowding around on the carpet like puppies, watching Days of Our Lives, Jennifer’s unwavering choice.
After scarfing down the powdery pastry and saccharine fruit gel, some of us would go out to the bare dirt mound where the basketball hoop was mounted. Tim was the best at basketball, and the other boys would get bored after few games of Horse. I was tenacious though, waiting for the moment when everyone else would clear, leaving the two of us alone. In these short lengths of time between the moment we were left and the encroaching night, we would go head-to-head, the ball ringing out against the hard-packed dirt, our hands smooth with dust, sweat sticking to our t-shirts, marking our hands and anywhere we had touched one another with the smudges of our game.
He, like all the boys, had been warned by John to treat me with respect. I was like a princess among them. Except for Tim, who would let his arms wrap around my middle in an attempt to get the upper hand, would place his legs on either side of mine—our appendages woven together—any closeness the ball allowed. It was only a matter of time before we kissed.
It was decided that I would go to Hilltop when I stopped going to school. Things that had been keeping me alive were losing their hold. Tim knew. He seemed to love my damage. He was going to be a Good Man, or at least he was trying. When I said stop, he did. I told him I would come back better.
When Billy passed me the basketball, it was reflex that grabbed hold of it and lobbed it back. He was rough and fast, his movements unfamiliar and jerky. I met him, step to step, didn’t fall back when he pushed forward. I scored on him from the three-point line, expecting the wide-open grin that Tim would’ve reserved for such a shot. I turned into his body and he checked me. I hit the ground hard. He was not my sweet opponent who would sneak a kiss to the back of my neck, who would throw me over his shoulder for winning.
I mistook this boy for another. No one had told him to protect me. To keep me safe from someone just like him.
* * *
My mother came to visit every chance she could. She would work all day, get in the car and drive the hour and forty-five minutes north just to see me for forty minutes. There were kids whose parents lived in the same town, but only came on Family Night. I knew then, and have always known, the certainty of my mother’s love. It’s something that set me apart at HCC, that my mother came each day. She gave me letters from my family, my friends, and Tim. She knew every staff member by their first name and asked for detailed updates on my progress.
She is the reason I lived. She believed me, both when I said the truth of what had happened and then again when I questioned the value of my own life. The hardest truth is that a mother’s love can’t always protect the child. Even from the other parent.
That month I was at HCC, there were record heat waves. We didn’t know it or feel it in the air-conditioned bubble of the interior. A week before I was released, our whole unit was allowed to hike up the hillside along the side of the facility to watch fireworks. A few days before, Rose had been moved to another place. She still had time left, but there was no more funding to support her treatment. Her departure was hard on me. I was surprised by the strength of my grief. If she left, I would leave soon too.
Without Rose around, I was vulnerable to Billy’s attention. She recognized immediately what kind of boy he was and would tell him to get the fuck away from us. Once she was gone he began sitting at my table at meal times, passing little misspelled notes: “Yur room. Toniht.”
“You’re not going to get into my room,” I challenged. “Staff are everywhere.”
“Is that a dare?” he sneered, his face red and pocked with acne. I wanted to tell Randy about the notes, but there was a part of me that was testing what would happen, that didn’t want protection, who wanted to see if the pervert curse held. There was also the beguiling hook that he liked me (or I perceived that was what his attentions meant). He wasn’t threatening to sneak into any other girl’s room, which by default, made me special. How many times had I enacted this exchange: aggression, silence, agreement, accusation? Was there ever a time I hadn’t, was more likely the question.
Was I surprised when the hall light, that never turned off, cut a shadow of his figure in my doorframe?
Did I answer him, deflating my name in the static air, hissing, Sarah Sarah Sarah?
I remember that his breath was acrid and mouth dry as he pressed his lips to mine, then the cruel bite, and the warmth of my blood. I was tucked in up to my chin, swaddled in the number-stamped bedding, which he pulled at, my lower lip kept still in his teeth. He found my nightshirt, pulled it up and held my breasts, one in each hand. He held to my flesh like he was intent on remaking me, as if I were clay he could shape into someone else, as if I could be pressed through the small openings his fingers left.
The next day, I had a fat lip. In the mirror, I saw that he left two purple wings, spreading and deepening in color across my chest.
He had only been there a moment. He knew that’s all he had. Before I could react to his swift violence, he was back in the doorframe, waiting for the right moment to creep back to his room.
I turned over into my wild, beating heart. I never told anyone.
* * *
Would it have been easier if Story of a Soul were my story? If praying was the answer to my suffering, letting me embrace the contrast of loss with the love of God. It wasn’t. I never opened that book of scriptures that Randy gifted to me, other than to read his words. It’s in a box somewhere, buried in stacks of letters and worksheets populated with my loopy teen script. If God existed anywhere, it was in those seconds my body was held against his with pure intent, or those few moments John allowed me to fall apart, protected in his arms.
When I was at HCC, I was between dying and finding the next story to live into. I didn’t yet believe that there was something better. I wanted merely to know that eventually the radiant edge of Mt. Shasta would look again like a mountain, rather than a cardboard cutout someone might punch their fist through. The love of those steadfast, uptight, gracious men calmed the gasping, flailing girl inside me, allowing me the knowledge that safety was possible. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined the life I would build or know that some suffering abates, that trauma retreats with the discovery of new ecstasies, new grief.
Driving south on I-5 toward home, I watch the last hour of sun play along the hillsides and ravines that make up the landscape between where I’ve come from and where I live. I think of my mother at the end of her long workday, driving these same roads to visit me, the fear and hope she must’ve held together over these miles.
I can barely remember the body and mind of my young self at Hilltop, but I do recall the guided imagery Jamie would lead me through in our sessions. She would lay me back on her couch and cover me with a soft blanket, turn the lights down. Once, she asked me to imagine a place where I felt protected and I saw my childhood bedroom, the butter-yellow walls and crinkled gauze curtains floating over the windows. I moved toward the small closet that my brother and I would hide in sometimes, pretending that we were looking for a portal into another world. There was a board there that you could move aside and see into the guts of the house.
In my mind, I held the edges of the board with my fingertips. I pried at it with all the strength my hands could muster. There was warmth on the other side. And there was light.
Special Guest Judge, Bernadette Murphy
“’Eternal Father and the Other Army’” is a narrative of healing crafted with lyric language and deep emotional insight. The author limns the human condition in all its complexity and messiness, celebrating moments of peace and redemption amid the pain and difficulties of growing up and moving forward.”
– Bernadette Murphy is the author of, most recently, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, May 2016), and the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.