by Rena Lesué-Smithey
At the beginning of our two-week residency in Barcelona, my writing cohort met for cocktails in the home of Bob Antoni, a West Indian writer whose fame, if it were a cyclone, would hover over central Europe. His renovated third-floor walk-up featured hardwood floors, exposed beams, and one wall of the building’s original brick. A minimalist, Bob had accessorized the home with carefully chosen and sparse antiques. In the parlor, I became entranced by a statue—dead center between two balconies (a castle sprawled in the view beyond them). The figure, bronze, two-feet tall, and modestly robed, stood on top of an armoire. She balanced in one hand a tray of two small domes. Though they had been nipple-less, my first thought was, Boobs? They were a distinct shape, rounded, supple, even a wee gelatinous—impressive for a solid medium. The rosary draped from her robes and the fierce demureness to her expression confirmed: Catholic. As a Mormon, I didn’t know much about the religion, but it seemed to me that a Catholic statue with breasts on a platter was an oddity.
I tracked down our host and tossed a thumb at the statue. “Are those breasts on the platter?”
“Yes,” Bob said in a way that almost sounded like ‘jes’. His Caribbean accent was obscured, like molasses in a ginger cookie. “She’s St. Agatha of Sicily, patron saint of Barcelona.”
He spoke of the legends of St. Agatha. In one, she pledged her virginity to God, but when she wouldn’t give in to a Roman ruler’s sexual advances, he ordered her breasts to be detached with pinchers. In Bob’s preferred version, St. Agatha had grown tired of the constant attention from men and sliced off her own breasts. His statue depicted her offering them to God, a symbol of her unwavering devotion.
I spent a moment imagining I was St. Agatha, bent over an array of kitchen knives trying to select the instrument that would slice through my flesh. Would I select something small for its agility? At what angle would I hold the weapon? Would I start from the bottom up? Would I cut out only the rounded tissue and fold the skin back into place and stitch it closed? Less scarring that way. I didn’t once, in my abstraction, question her motives. Even in Bob’s favored tale, the “attention” St. Agatha received was almost certainly a watered-down way of saying “abuse”. To resort to self-mutilation, she likely had been sexually assaulted multiple times, perhaps violently. Maybe she tried other deterrents first, or maybe that had been her first attempt to solve the problem. Either way, I understood the conviction to remove the thing that lured lecherous men.
I hadn’t thought to cut off my own breasts in 1994 when I was twelve, living in rural Missouri, and enduring the unwanted “attention” of a man five years my elder, but then I had been as flat as a Bible cover and not entirely sure what I’d worn to tempt him.
A week after I had been molested, I flipped through my copy of the For the Strength of the Youth pamphlet, an addition to my religious texts when I turned twelve, and trailed my finger under the section on Dress and Appearance. “The way you dress sends messages about yourself to others and often influences the way you and others act…” I had followed the guidelines, eschewing bikinis and revealing or provocative trends, such as low-cut or off-the shoulder styles. “Immodest clothing includes short shorts, tight pants, and other revealing attire.” I slipped into my mother’s bathroom and stood in front of the full-length mirror, wondering what he had seen in me. I imagined myself in the shorts I wore that night, analyzed the level of tightness, concluding that there should be a chart to compare your pants against to see if they broadcasted wicked signals. As a robot, I mimicked my body movements during the game of Hot Lava I’d played the evening he stared at me. I paused in certain poses and imagined my mother’s past admonitions. “Hon, don’t stand like that. It’s too…” and her mouth twisted up from the lemon of the thought. Why hadn’t I cried out that night? Said, No means no, buster! I couldn’t explain my sudden paralysis, how my limbs had ossified when he’d slid close to me, his head even with my belly and breath hot on my skin. The Australia-shaped birthmark on my hip had been exposed and still I hadn’t moved.
In the weeks to follow, when I had to leave the house for school and church, I ensconced myself in jeans and flannel shirts that I stole from my brother’s closet and wore my hair slicked back in an asexual ponytail. I had acquired a couple of baby tees, the latest in 90s trends, but I hated their snugness. I much preferred to wear a genderless cocoon of oversized sweatshirts.
At some point it occurred to me that he might not have been baited by my clothes, but by my face. I had blue eyes, a nose I hadn’t grown into, and a valance of bangs. I was hardly the stuff of magazines. I’m no Topanga. And if my face had betrayed me, it wouldn’t matter what I wore.
I anesthetized with ice cream, monkey bread, and whatever sugary foods we had or that I could bake to fill the abyss in my soul. Everything had a waxy aftertaste. Abiding by the teachings of my religion, I knelt in supplication in my closet, pleading for forgiveness until my knees became bumpy from the carpet. To put it out of my mind, I filled my head with scripture verses, hymns, and articles from The New Era, a Latter-day Saint (LDS) teen magazine whose anecdotal features stressed the importance of preparing for a proselyting mission if you were a boy and temple marriage if you were a girl. I didn’t think I could do either. In church, a teacher used gum in an object lesson about our sexuality. What I learned: someone had chewed me and now no one would want me.
That summer, my ward (church community) hosted a two-day youth trip to the Dallas Temple—my first one. In several vehicles, we would caravan southwest and in the temple perform proxy baptisms for the dead. I wanted to attend, but we sinners weren’t allowed. It was a special kind of sin to enter the temple knowingly unworthy, and yet, I figured I’d apologized enough to God that surely he’d forgiven me, and maybe I’d missed the confirmation in my heart. I pretended not to be dirty as I packed for the trip. I pretended when the Young Men and Young Women (the LDS groups between the ages of twelve through eighteen) divvied into minivans. And I pretended for eight hours on the drive to Texas. My memories of that trip are murky, clouded by remorse. I can recall a distinct image from the temple: my tentative steps into the baptismal font, a trough of luminous water on the backs of twelve alabaster oxen and the sense that my sin leaked from my pores, blackening the water upon my immersion.
On the drive back, the Ashley boys “accidentally” left a pimple-faced kid, Gary, at a gas station. They drove out of sight, watching him wave, drop his bag of Swedish Fish, and step futilely toward the road. I knew that feeling. Abandoned. He could’ve use the payphone, if they’d really left him. He could’ve called his parents, and someone would’ve made the drive across two states to save him. There was someone I could call too. The repentance process had been drilled into me since I was eight and had been baptized, cleansed of wrong-doings. Not forever. Life happened. Sin happened. And in that case there was the sacrament. We sinners were to pray for forgiveness and then, each Sunday, partake of the bread and water to renew our baptismal covenants and be purified by the metaphoric body and blood of Christ. But some crimes required another rung on the repentance latter. Egregious offenses needed a third party, the ward bishop, to hear a confession. My voice would absolve me.
Upon return, I made the appointment with Bishop Ashley, a weary man with a round face and promontory baldness. He had a reputation for being spiritual and honest. I trusted him. We sat across from each other, he behind a plain desk flanked by photos of the prophet and twelve male apostles, and I on the other side of the office in a cushioned folding chair. The carpet, flecked with sepia and sage threads, curved up along the walls and rose midway up in a peculiar wainscoting, coarse enough to draw blood if you raked an elbow on it.
The platitudes were dispensed, over too quickly, and I waded in the flood of tension surrounding his question, “What can I do for you?”
My tongue dried up, words along with it, and all the moisture seemed to transfer to my tear ducts. It got so silent, not even a clock ticked. I swallowed down a nest of remorse, heaved an inhale, and wept my confession. I disclosed my wickedness, whimpered out vague details about how my molester touched me and how I just let him do it. I plucked tissue after tissue, soaked up the snot, and dropped them wadded in my lap like dead moths.
Bishop Ashley rubbed his brow. “Is this boy in the ward?”
“No. He’s not a member.”
I hoped I’d said enough to thwart questions, because I didn’t want to give up the bit of information that I found most humiliating: the fact that I let a seventeen-year-old touch me when I wasn’t even allowed to date for three more years.
The skin around his mouth drooped in a frown, like a cartoon butler or a hound dog.
“As a bishop, the Lord has blessed me with the ability to forget some of the confessions I hear. In this case, I’m going to pray that Heavenly Father helps you forget what happened too. You are clean and Heavenly Father forgives you.”
I felt as if my spirit had been blasted with a wind. Mentally, I greeted it chin-first with arms stretched in the cross. I could breathe with ease.
He and I prayed together, and I insisted he promise not to tell my parents. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I left, grateful to have peeled the Devil’s fingers from my soul.
In the years after I was fondled, I suffered from a sort of palliative amnesia or at the very least compartmentalized the trauma. I never forgot it, as the bishop prayed I would, but I could set the ordeal aside so that it didn’t torment me daily. The violation had slashed the nylon of my soul, and repentance patched it back together. The relief seemed immediate at the time but, looking back, my eighth grade progress report for the fall semester showed that I earned three Cs and two Ds, one in Language Arts. My grades had never dipped that low and never in English.
Two-and-a-half years after I’d been taken advantage of, my family moved to Mississippi. My sister, Mary, and I made many Mormon friends and became infamous for our girls-only sleepovers. The summer after we moved there, we hosted one with a dozen teenage girls. We spread out our blankets on the living room floor to watch Better Off Dead. We painted our nails blues and greens, and had whole conversations in movie quotes.
Inevitably, boys came up. Who are you crushing on? Oh, he has Kurt Cobain hair! Does he grab your butt when you kiss? One of the girls, Mika, found my yearbook from Missouri and held it up with both hands. “Rena, ‘do you realize the street value of this mountain?’”
We gathered together, our legs pretzeled, and rated the guys on looks, smell, personality—all the details I happily filled in. When Mom skedaddled to the store for more Doritos, a girl with big Bambi eyes said, “Can I axe y’all a question?” Bambi traced phantom lines between moles on her thigh. Her other hand shook and she fisted it. Her demeanor dropped a thickening agent into the air that rippled over each girl. Smiles vanished, good humor stowed. My hands froze over the dread I braided in Mika’s hair.
“Y’all ever been moe-lested? Or raped?”
I felt myself tuck small, my heart cowered into a tomb of denial. Throats around the room, Amanda’s tallow neck, Hannah’s caramel one, ribbed like a tin can, undulated, swallowing something deep inside.
“Mm-hm,” said an older girl. “My stepdad.”
I tugged at my shorts to cover Australia.
“Me too. An uncle,” said another. She gave PG-13 details.
My neck turtled. Should we be talking about this? Bambi shared her tale. She’d always been a sweet girl and naïve about topics that should remain private. And now she was a brave voice in the pool of girls who bonded over common traumas. The girls shared several moments of sympathy, empathy, and discomfited hugs, and I sat a little ways off trembling, stamping down the zombie memory of that monster hand, the rot, my sin. I kept it buried, writhing beneath the weight of my repentance, my absolution. I was free. He said I was free.
Bambi’s gaze circled to me. She’d made the rounds, marauded the girls’ minds and spilled rotten memories as if paraphernalia from bad relationships, ready to ignite on a pyre. I crossed my legs at my ankles and shook my head. Nothing to see here. She moved on to Mary, whose pitiful expression, even framed in ridiculous-looking tin foil-tipped dreadlocks, said everything. I could never tell her.
Under my lashes, I stole glances at the other girls, other victims. To them, I prayed to God to comfort them. How awful, I thought. How awful that must have been.
Ten years after I was victimized, I carried the weight of my firstborn, a daughter. I lived in Utah, finishing my degree in English Education at UVU. I wrote my first novel about a Mormon woman who was raped and impregnated, but who chose to keep the baby. She navigated rebuke from church members who encouraged her to get an abortion—as this was one of two circumstances in which a forced miscarriage was condoned. It was my research for this novel and a literature class at UVU that put me in contact with other rape accounts. I read The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr and recall the pages where she, at a very young age, had been lured by a neighbor boy to a garage and raped. The parities in conditions, his audacity, her confusion and fury, I knew it all. I had felt it on the floor of that farmhouse in Missouri. I threw it across the room. An inexplicable sense of loneliness followed. So I retrieved the book and clutched it to my chest like a dear friend. Or the twelve-year-old me. It’s not your fault, I wanted to tell her. You’re going to be fine. But whispers to a past-self snag, like everything else, on Time’s forward momentum.
Over the years, Rick, my husband, urged me to tell my parents, but it wasn’t really polite conversation. Molestations don’t usually come up at family functions. Nevertheless, it eventually did.
We’d gone to Mom’s house during the day. She and my dad had retired to Springville, Utah, a quiet artsy community with an old-fashioned soda fountain on Main Street. Mom and Dad lived in a two-storied Nantucket blue home wrapped at the base in brick. I sat at the table with them, chit-chatting about the old times in the Ozarks when a mass slumped in my gut. It was time. I told them.
They were silent, processing, and my mother’s face flashed an uncomfortable recognition: Now it makes sense. I couldn’t bring myself to ask what, pray tell, suddenly made sense about me? What switch had been flipped? What gross error could be forgiven now that I’d revealed myself as a victim?
“Do you need…want to see a therapist?” she asked.
For years, I’d been hoarding courage to tell my parents, and the act drained my reserves. I couldn’t imagine sharing with a complete stranger. Besides, writing salved my wounds. I declined.
“We’ll pay whatever it costs.”
Dad’s lips tightened, his rage compressed between them. “I’ve still got friends on the force in that area,” he said. “Do you want me to take care of him for you?”
Dad had recently retired. His career began in Vietnam where he intercepted and decoded messages in the service of the US Army. Over the years, he was employed by several branches of the government, including Customs, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the FBI. Earlier in his career he’d worked in the Pentagon and had even debriefed the Joint Chiefs. So the weight of that question, its implications… Take care of him how? From the darkness in his eyes, I knew the lengths he would go to protect me were much broader than I’d imagined.
“No, Dad. I’ll be fine,” I said, but not because it wasn’t that bad. Rather, because I didn’t want him to make a choice that would irrevocably alter the course of his life and, by extension, the whole family’s. My dad’s reaction did beg the question: if it was bad enough to traumatize me and drive my father to vengeance, why didn’t we do anything about it? What could we have done? If the statute of limitation hadn’t expired, I could’ve taken the asshole who fondled me to court, but what were the laws regarding a seventeen-year-old abusing a twelve-year-old? Legally, we were both in that gray area between childhood and adulthood. Besides, I had no evidence except for the testimony of my bishop, who hadn’t recognized sexual abuse when he heard it from the victim’s mouth. Even if I wanted to enlist his help, a lawsuit meant a lot of invasive prodding and uninvited pity. If I hadn’t grown up in a religious culture that led me to believe I’d been liable for my own sexual abuse, maybe then I’d have divulged it to Mom immediately afterward and we’d have had more of a leg to stand on in court. But isn’t that what molesters count on? Cultures that place responsibility on the wounded. It is that bad.
Twenty years post-molestation, while in Barcelona and after my encounter with the St. Agatha statue, I went on a walking tour with my grad school associates. On one street, there waved a banner of a woman, bare-chested with purple rails in the place where her bosom should have been. Our guide translated it, said it was an ad for a photography exhibit featuring survivors of breast-cancer. This I understood. Women removing their breasts to cut out a disease that dissolved her to a pale, veiny shell. This was a good reason to remove one’s appendages. To fight cancer. (I daresay we ought to be able to quell the other, cultural cancer without disfiguring ourselves.)
“What does it mean?” I asked, reading the caption. “Costures a flor de pell?”
She rubbed her fingers over the seam on her shorts. “S-seams on tha surface of tha skin.”
“You mean, like scars?”
She shook her head, pointed to where my shirt-sleeve met my shoulder, and insisted on the distinction. “Seams.”
I let the difference float and settle like a feather over my heart. Seams were not scars. I had had a scar on my psyche. It ripped through logic and fed on shame. But literature, time, and experience unraveled bits of the ropey disgrace I’d carried, and then it was me who undid the rest. Me, who ironed out the roughness until only a watermark remained, because it never comes out entirely.