Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
The best decision in my life was made at 15-years-old. I told my mother and father that I would no longer wanted to "go to Pensacola." Which meant, never seeing The Family, the extended network of cousins, uncles, great uncles, and once-removed's. More importantly, the cousin who had sexually assaulted me when I was five years old. He had threatened to burn down my house if I told anyone and kill everyone I knew.
My parents said that it was OK. "Understandable," was the word my mother used.
I had won something that day; got a little bit of my power back (much like I have today, as I write this). The years between five and 15-years-old we visited Pensacola once a month since it was only an hour East of where we lived in Mobile, Alabama. I remember the drives very vividly, because the nerves would build up the moment it was announced that we were going. It never occurred to me to tell anyone for fear of him making due on his threat. If you can imagine a 5-year-old who cried herself to sleep, stuffed of PTSD (yes, diagnosed by several professionals) and anxiety and worry and fear of a second assault, thats exactly what I was. Once I was caught with homemade pepper spray that I'd stored in an empty bottle of cleaning fluid and took with me to Pensacola. Everyone asked: "Who are you going to use it on?"
There might not be a relationship, but I've always believed it were those experiences that turned me into the sort of nervous, shy child I became. In my teens, I was so envious of the people who were allowed to grow up without grave worry. There would later be two other incidents with other people (one in adulthood, one at seven years old) that also defined my life. People never realized that when they asked me, "Why don't you want to have kids?" the answer to the question was, "Because my own childhood was fucking hell on earth," but I always answered, "I'm selfish," or made up a canned response I'd heard women on TV say.
Wrongly or not, then and now, I directed a lot of anger at The Family. I formed a vision of them that looked like the villains in cartoons. Its a strange shift that could only happen with childhood logic. I only knew how to lump people as "good or bad." I took one bad person and lumped them the whole lot of them with the "bad" people. It begot the kind of preteen who hated the Christmas and Thanksgiving Holidays, (which are known to me as multiple days of sheer terror), and who rolled her eyes at news from The Family.
"Those ghetto idiots," I was known to say down the bridge of my nose. I was always "better than." To the outsider, this paints me as a villainous snob who never visits, who doesn't show up to funerals, who doesn't give gifts or phone calls, because my hatred seems without reason. It proves my favorite quote to be true: "Villains are just misunderstood."
When I met more of my family based up north, great aunts and great uncles, I was sad to hear that there was reports of sexual assault among some relatives, totally separate people and apart from my own incident. I wasn't surprised at the news, this was the same great-uncle who tried to pull down the sleeve of my zip up shirt at a party, "I want to see that body," he said drunkenly. No one really reprimanded him, besides a "cut that out," and no one ever confronted them about the incidents. Being a silent bystander was never in my list of personality traits, watching and saying nothing is complicity in itself; so I always knew one of these posts would come. One day, I'd be pointing a finger in their face. If I ever had advice for anyone, it would be that when you avoid conflict, the conflict only continues inside of you.
So far, it's been 15 years since I've been back to Pensacola. I say this number proudly. ("15 years! 15 glorious years!") I've enjoyed being the unseen and unheard of relative who callously cares nothing about you or your kids. The black sheep.
As much as I love Facebook, I hate and love the gap it bridges between myself and my relatives. Sometime in winter, a Facebook event invitation arrived. It was the bi-annual family reunion, this time on the west coast. I scrolled down the faces of invited relatives and my heart did some strange thing and my gag reflex activated -- the face of my assailant. I don't know where he lives, or what he does. I'm afraid of what that information might mean to me. He hadn't responded to the invite.
"We're all going to go!" my parents said excitedly that my sister and I could go and we could have a family trip out of it. I had such glowing things to say about the Bay Area and none of them had gone yet. I would have loved to take them to In 'n Out burger for dinner and show my father the redwoods and see their faces when they got their first glance of the Golden Gate Bridge.
"I might have to work," I lied.
"Well, can't you just request off?" my parents asked. "We're all going to go!"
"I'll just have to see," I said vaguely.
When I hung up the phone I turned on "The Bachelorette," a show full of midwest-American values and traditional gender roles. The good matches all tell The Bachelorette: "family is so important to me." I always snicker out of jealously.
"You're so lucky you have that choice."