Testimony

I wear my purple suit to testify against my father. Deep-hued and simply tailored, it masks my insecurities, costumes me in a longed-for confidence that I hope will belie my fear. I resist smoothing the brushed-gold buttons on the jacket, avoid fingering the garment’s knotted rayon slubs. Instead I worry the flat gold pendant around my neck that bears the Hebrew symbol chai, which means “life.” My grandmother gave it to me when I was born.

My sister, Jean, has decided to sue our father for sexual abuse from the time she was a toddler until well into her teens. She is thirty years old but the statute of limitations in Michigan is liberal and tolls as long as memories keep surfacing. Because the traumas flood her psyche like sewage backing up after a storm, the statute continues to run.

Jean’s lawyer wants me to provide corroborating evidence, state for the record what I observed between my sister and my father. But Jean and I are eleven years apart and I cannot corroborate with absolutes; while he was violating her I was at school, with friends, on dates, shopping, married. Or sequestered in my room, inhaling books and their alternative realities that, from the time I could read, sheltered me from the turmoil inherent in nine children attempting to navigate an environment forged by maternal alcoholism and paternal violence.

Although my own psychological septic system continues to overflow, I have no interest in suing my father: I have not spoken to him for more than seven years and feel safe in the silence. But I admire my sister’s courage. And because I know that speaking out will help my own healing, I can testify about how he sexually abused me.

“To help establish a pattern,” I tell Jean’s lawyer when he unexpectedly calls me at my job as communications director for a bar association.

“Exactly,” he says. “I’ll send you an affidavit to sign. You’ll be deposed some time after that.”

Shaking, I hang up the phone and call my therapist.

“Of course, you’re scared,” she says. “But you’re ready, you’re safe, and you’ll be fine.”

I remind myself to believe her and attempt to finish a press release about lawyer community service. But instead, I stare at a window washer riding up the side of the parking garage across the street. He stands on chrome scaffolding, brushes against the orange cyclone fencing that keeps him safe. Cables dangle from his perch, yellow and black ropes that sway like pendulums over the garage walls. I want to reach out and grab one.

Several days later, I receive the affidavit. Written in legalese, it is a jumble of words that says everything yet nothing; that what happened to Jean happened to me, and so help me God, I’m telling. A vacationing panic attack returns and reminds me of the prohibitions against speaking out, of my father’s threats to kill me if I do, his promises that no one will believe me anyway. My psychiatrist increases the dosage of my medication.

“The affidavit is too broad,” my own lawyer says. “We need to make it as detailed as possible. Tell everything. Convince the judge that you’ve nothing to hide, that your father’s a monster.”

In the weeks following, I try to remember what I was wearing when I answered the telephone and volunteered to testify, which suit I will donate to Goodwill so it won’t betray me again.

*     *     *

Although my own psychological septic system continues to overflow, I have no interest in suing my father: I have not spoken to him for more than seven years and feel safe in the silence.

I am the family golden girl. Intelligent and restless like my father who, in his thirties, returned to school to become an English and drama teacher. Quiet like my mother who, between drinking binges and depressive episodes, wrapped herself in the living room drapes and peered through the plate glass at our cats padding across the front lawn, at the crazy people entering and exiting the home office of the psychiatrist across the street. My father liked me that way and I didn’t want to trigger his rage; my sister and brother had that responsibility. He brought me books, gold charms to add to the bracelet he bought for my birthday, a corsage for my piano recital. When I met his friends and students he smiled, said, “This is my dumb one.” He pointed to my beautiful sister Naomi. “And this is the ugly one.”

My mother lived her days in captivity, her slurred words and erratic behaviors raging through our lives like a squall.

“She’s nuts,” my father said, and nodded toward where she lay curled on the living room floor, weeping and muttering. “Look at her. Crazy.” I turned away.

My father worked at his typewriter in the basement where there were witches, he said. We’d better listen to him or he’d throw us down there and they’d get us. In the kitchen he sliced rotting mangoes and pears for chutney. We’d better listen to him or he’d chop us all up into bloody pieces.

“I hate you!” my sister said, and punched him. He bloodied her nose.

“Cock sucker,” my brother said. My father lunged at him with a knife.

I stayed safe in my room with a book.

When I was in second grade, my father came to my bed at night, wrapped his arms around me, reached between my legs and rubbed. He taunted me with the consequences of telling. “They’ll say you’re crazy, too. Lock you up, throw away the key. Then the spiders will eat you.”

When he went to the bathroom or across the hall to my sister or fell asleep, sated, I crept downstairs. “Daddy’s bothering me,” I said to the tangle of sheets that was my mother.

“Go back to bed. You’re having a nightmare.”

Years later, my cousin told me that my father called me his rose. I think of the deposition, wonder if my father now calls me his thorn.

*     *     *

Jean, my youngest sister, is the eighth child. When she was four years old and our baby brother was born, her imaginary friend, Jane, moved in with us. Jean carted Jane everywhere, talked to her, bathed her.

“See,” my father said. “The only people who like you are invisible.”

Three years later, during my first semester of college, I came home for a visit. Jane was gone, replaced by a real child from the neighborhood. As Jean dressed to go play, I noticed her arms. Scabs covered them. Fresh and bleeding. Old and crusty. I smoothed my hair back and remembered seventh grade honors English, the double class periods where, as I listened to the silence of others working, I carefully peeled brown crusts from my scalp.

“What happened to Jean?” I asked my mother. She lit a cigarette, told me how my sister picked at the skin on her arms, then the resulting scabs. She raised an eyebrow, blew out a thin line of smoke.

I approached my father, suggested that they take Jean to a counselor. “Aren’t we little Miss Psych 101,” he said.

In the sixth grade, Jean threw her desk and the district transferred her to another school.

“She just wants attention,” my mother said about the requirement that Jean go into therapy.

After several sessions with a social worker, Jean ran away. When she returned, my parents sent her to a home for delinquent girls and, later, committed her to a local state hospital. She ran some more, got pregnant a few times, had abortions. Pregnant again at seventeen, she married the baby’s father. The marriage lasted less than a year.

*     *     *

In spring 1986, I was thirty-four and in therapy for the fourth time: I had recently returned to my marriage after a five-month separation that I’d initiated without understanding why. During treatment my memories started surfacing, then consuming me. As panic suffocated me and dizziness spun me to the couch, my husband, a full-time graduate student, assumed most of the parenting responsibilities for our young sons. Each night I lay in his arms in bed, sweating and breathless, trying to convince myself that he was not my father, that I was safe. “He’ll kill me,” I said, and sobbed, shook.

My husband clutched me tighter, kissed the top of my head.

My father worked at his typewriter in the basement where there were witches, he said. We’d better listen to him or he’d throw us down there and they’d get us.

During the day, I sold furniture in a shop near our home. As long as I went to work, I could pretend that I was fine, I was capable, I was calm. But even when business thrived, traffic in the store was light. So in between chatting with my coworker about his social life or my kids or the inanity of what we were doing, I wandered around the showroom from bookcase to bar stool, stopping at a dresser with a mirror that showed me, when I dared to look, that even if I was a ghost, I was a visible one.

One night that summer, I was washing dinner dishes while my husband read to our boys. The telephone rang. I turned off the water, dried my hands. “Hello?” I said.

“Hi, Leah,” my father replied. “You feeling any better?”

“I don’t want to talk to you!” I slammed down the receiver and returned to the sink, where I turned the water back on, twisted it off, stared out the window, shook my head. With my teeth, I tore the nail from my pinkie.

*     *     *

After Jean files her lawsuit, she calls me frequently. Our mother is named codefendant, she says, and, several months later, in June 1992, our mother calls me, enraged. “Doesn’t she have enough attention already?” she says. “What’s she doing this to me for? The money? That’s it, Leah. It must be the money. Doesn’t she know Dad doesn’t have any, he’s a teacher?”

Jean pleads with me to make it stop, the nightmares that wake her, the day terrors that stalk her, the clattering chaos of her kids being kids as she huddles in the corner of her living room, knees bent, head tucked, arms clutching her gut. As she whispers and sobs, I watch the air from the vent on my kitchen floor ruffle my calendar, separate yesterday, today, tomorrow.

My lawyer asks me to write about how my father abused me, what I observed in his relationship with Jean, with my other siblings, the general chaos and violence in our house. From it, he will prepare a detailed affidavit. I flush twelve pages from my system in little more than two days, amazed at the ease with which the truth escapes. His finished product annoys me. Though the facts are mine, the voice, the verbose writing, the disorganization belong to him. Still, I sign Leah Joy Silverman Gales and affix a date. I choose a judge to notarize it, a woman who is a vocal supporter of efforts to stop domestic violence.

As the months pass, my sister’s telephone calls ebb and flow. I talk to her out of love, out of a sense of responsibility and duty as the oldest. We rant about our father, deplore his actions in our pasts, his antagonism toward her now. He raped us both, the sonofabitch, asshole, slime. It doesn’t matter how, when, where, how often. We don’t talk about the other ways he abused us, so certain are we of the similarities in trespass, in violence. So much is family lore, anyway. The “tickle tortures” we accepted so matter-of-factly, the “Indian burns” he twisted into rawness around our forearms. The feel of his tongue in our ears, his fingers pinching our buttocks, groping our crotches. Didn’t all fathers walk around the house in boxer shorts, flaunting belly and balls like trophies? Or adorn their suits at election time with pins proclaiming, “Mike Hunt for President?” We fantasize how we’d like to slice him crotch to throat, let him bleed, see how it feels to be split open. We wonder about why, absent one short letter, he doesn’t try to find out the source of my anger, the reason his golden girl has cut him off. Jean is crazy, everybody knows that. But Leah? The smart one? The good one?

*     *     *

When my mother dies in early 1993 from emphysema and probable lung cancer, the lawsuit is well underway. I attend the funeral in California. Jean stays home. She doesn’t want to see the brother who offers her $10,000 to shut up, the sister who tells her to “just let go and let God.” Our father, though divorced from our mother for almost twenty years—nearly as long as the two of them were married—will certainly be there. It’s an event; he’s a director.

Six of my siblings attend. All have a relationship with my father, know that I’ve cut him off too, pretend that I haven’t. “Jean’s a bitch,” they say. “She’s crazy. Fuck her.” They study me as I enter my brother’s California contemporary home, wait for my father to return from viewing my mother’s body.

The front door opens with a squeak followed by a collective but quiet gasp. “Hello!” my father says to us all.

I am silent.

He’s upbeat but emotional, this man who cried through Pollyanna, and works the room like a politician desperate for votes. “How are the kids?” he asks me jovially.

My sibs look at one another as I mumble, turn my head, sit on the piano bench with my young nephew and begin to play something, anything.

My father asks if my husband, a professor, has tenure yet, how my job is going. I mutter an answer and get a bagel from the dining room, a hug from a brother, return to the piano. The phone rings. “I’ll get it,” my father announces. My brothers and sisters relax. I sigh, brush some poppy seeds from the skirt of my deep purple suit.

That night, a brother who regularly welcomes Grandpa’s offers to babysit the granddaughters says, “I know Dad’s an asshole, but you could at least talk to him. He feels bad.”

I stare at him.

A few months later, the judge assigned to my sister’s case orders both sides into non-binding mediation. My father now has two lawyers: his personal lawyer and the one from the insurance company that, if my father is found guilty, will be responsible for any settlements.

After the mediation, my lawyer calls me. “The mediators found in your sister’s favor,” he says. “Four hundred fifty thousand dollars worth.”

“Really?” I say. “That’s fantastic. It’s over, right? I don’t have to testify.”

“Assuming your father accepts the mediator’s recommendations,” my lawyer explains.

“I’m not giving her a fucking penny of my money,” my father tells my brother.

*     *     *

Jean and I continue our long-distance hand holding and hugs. She sails through her deposition, she says, proud that she’s healing, anxious to put all in her past. Pregnant with child number five, she asks if she and her boyfriend can visit over Labor Day weekend on their way to Tennessee. I can’t wait to hold her, see that she’s okay. Have concrete proof that we’ve both come this far.

We fantasize how we’d like to slice him crotch to throat, let him bleed, see how it feels to be split open.

In August, I attend a five-day Outward Bound course for women survivors of violence and, at its conclusion, collect the pin that reminds us of all we’ve accomplished. Though my panic attacks are diminishing, memories still steal my breath and remind me that I’m enmeshed in a process that most likely won’t end. But my children are healthy, my marriage stable, and every weekday morning I dress in a suit and pumps, drive downtown and publicize the good deeds of lawyers. I’m proud; I’m tough. Like a biker chick, my friends tease, and say that I’ll soon want a Harley.

The lawyers schedule my deposition for November, in Cincinnati, where I live. My sister’s and father’s lawyers will attend, as will my lawyer and my therapist. My father, playing coward, will stay home.

Except when it’s already tomorrow, time drags. I spend it in therapy and on hold with my lawyer, calculating his fees. When I travel to professional conferences, my pumps, purses, and pearls share space in my two-suiter with Charles, my ratty stuffed panda and confidante.

Finally, the week before Labor Day, I call Jean about her impending visit. Her telephone has been disconnected. The sister who lives in the area, who often takes Jean’s son for weekends, doesn’t have the new number, tells me Jean’s probably run again. I hear her chuckle softly over the phone, see in my mind the smirk, her self-righteous nod. “She’s nuts, Leah. You really think she’s going to hang around for that court case?”

Neither my nor Jean’s lawyers has information on her whereabouts. In extra therapy sessions, I vacillate from worrying about her safety to raging about her disappearance. She’s using me, I tell my therapist. She doesn’t need my testimony, hers is enough, she gets off on the idea of our father writhing even more. She wants our siblings to rally around her, thinks having me on her side will make that happen. I’m freaking out, I tell my therapist, while Jean’s laughing hysterically.

“Who are you doing this for, Leah?” my therapist asks repeatedly.

And always I answer, “Me.”

*     *     *

On the morning of November 5, I ease into my black-silk shell, step into my purple skirt. Before putting on my jacket, I lightly moisten my left upper arm and slip a temporary tattoo onto the skin. “Born Free,” it says. “Harley-Davidson.” I attach the Outward Bound pin to an inside jacket seam and, around my neck, fasten the chai necklace.

At the law office where my deposition is scheduled, I seat myself at the conference table and smooth my skirt. Around me sit the lawyers, my therapist, the court reporter. On the floor beside me, Charles the Bear scrunches inside my briefcase.

We make introductions, chatter mindlessly about the weather or the bar association or college football. My lawyer shuffles the pile of legal folders on the table in front of him, clears his throat. He reminds me that the court will seal the record, asks me if I am ready to begin.

“Yes,” I say, and nod.

The court reporter’s fingernails click codelike against the keys on her miniature keyboard. Do you solemnly swear? she says. The record needs to know.

Again I nod, then, “Yes.”

I take a deep breath and speak.

 

Leah Silverman writes in part to help raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community. Her fiction, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has been published (under the name Leah Silverman Gales) in The Carolina Quarterly, Meridian, and Web del Sol, and is forthcoming on JewishFiction.net. Her nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth. A metropolitan Detroit native, Leah holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She currently lives in Durham, NC, where she is writing a memoir and making abstract art.