Read and destroy
When she was 10, he began to molest her. When she was 13, he stopped. And then, on and off for a decade, they exchanged letters through the mail. Karen Durrie looks back on the abusive relationship that changed her life, and the disturbing correspondence that followed in its wake
In the drawer of my bedside table there is a small mailing tube, yellowed with age and inked in the blocky letters one associates with artists and architects. Its postmark reads "1987, Duncan, B.C." The name on the return address is "Johanna Schupf."
This tube and the papers inside it have journeyed along life's track with me, a haunted relay baton that hasn't left my grasp. It lay hidden in a shoebox under my bed in the green-and-white colonial I lived in in my father's house in Calgary until I moved out at 22. It was stored in the spare-bedroom closet of my first apartment during college. It's been packed in moving boxes and it rolled carelessly around inside the warped drawer of an antique washstand. It was packed, with childhood diaries, stacks of journals and various love letters, and then towed in a U-Haul up Highway 63 to my first stint as a newspaper reporter in Fort McMurray.
It has travelled around and throughout my life, this fucking tube. It – and a small passel of 21 more letters from the same sender – has taken up room in every home I've occupied. The tube and the packet contain letters from a man who molested me. After the molestation stopped, I wrote to him from the age of 13, on and off for a decade. And he wrote me back.
Why would anyone maintain a relationship with someone who abused them? The tube and the packet contain at least part of the answer.
"Johanna Schupf" was a man named John. His letters were filled with professions of longing for me, scenes of his new life on Vancouver Island, random thoughts and silly, Monty Pythonesque writings. Sometimes, bits of art.
The letters almost always contained this instruction: R.A.D.
Read and destroy.
In 1977 my mother was caught cheating on my father. And that's where my life veered sharply off its mellow course and into terrain studded with potholes and precipitous drops.
My parents' marriage caved. My father was furious, understandably. He played his hand as the main breadwinner and moved mom into our house's second-floor rental space, until she became exasperated with the lack of privacy and moved out to a dank old basement apartment in the inner city. My father insisted my brother, Stuart, and I live with him. Nobody asked us what we wanted.
We spent Wednesday nights and weekends at our mother's barren new abode, a 15-minute car ride from dad's. And thus began my grooming by John, an eccentric painter she'd met and fallen for at the art college they both attended.
The name "John" seems benign: simple and solid. But it stirs a queasy sensation in my gut, as I remember how loaded it was when spoken around my dad, to say nothing of the feelings of shame attached to it. It takes me to grotty places and guilty corners, against my will. To the single mattress on the peeling lino tile floor, and the sound of my pale yellow terry-cloth footy pyjamas being unzipped. To hot breath on my body fanned through his dark, woolly beard. To tears of shame leaking from the corners of my squeezed-shut eyes as I waited for it to be over.
To a time when, as the house slept, each dry crackle and squeak of its floor meant either resident ghosts or the approach of a predator. The ghosts were only in my imagination. And hiding under a sheet kept them at bay.
There was a glass door between my mother's bedroom and the one I often shared with my brother, unless he was sleeping on the living-room couch. The glass door had a panel of gathered sheer fabric Mom had sewn for her privacy. It also kept her from seeing the truth on the other side, steps from where she lay and worlds away from her perception of reality.
My parents were attentive and loving, involved. They encouraged our activities, such as Brownies and soccer. We went camping and took summer vacations. After the split, they tried, most of the time, to get along and keep things normal in front of us. But the changes were marked.
We now lived with a workaholic single dad and a harried full-time student mom. We shuttled back and forth between homes. We were latchkey kids. That's the term, but until we got too big for it, we let ourselves into our turn-of-the-century house by squeezing through the milk chute. My brother was three years younger than me, and I was charged with his care. I resented it sometimes: My friends weren't allowed to come over, because there wasn't an adult in charge.
There was emotional and economic strain all around, and we two, who had always been good, tried to blend into the wallpaper. We tried not to show anger or sadness, and didn't kick up a fuss if we were going somewhere boring – or, for me, somewhere tainted with dread. We spent lots of time in the car being schlepped to the art college and between houses, and lots of time keeping ourselves occupied.
Mom would sometimes take us to her studio after school to kick around while she finished a project. My brother and I first met John at the art college. I was 10. He stood just under six feet tall, and wore a faded green-and-black lumberjack shirt over a black T-shirt, grubby jeans and brown leather shoes. Acrylic paint crusted under his fingernails, and little splatters of white floated in his frizzy, receding dark-reddish hair. He laid colour down thickly on his canvases, a contrast to my mother's precise, painterly realism. They shared the same birthday. He was 30 – a year older than her.
Right from the start, John had an appealing, silly way of joking and teasing. He showed interest in my drawings and the music that I liked. Stuart and I didn't know he was in a relationship with our mother. She revealed it only after we'd met him a few times.
I was bashful at first, then sought out his attentions by cracking wise and showing him stories I had written. He started coming around regularly whenever mom had us at her apartment. And then he began sleeping over, spreading his time and belongings between his place and hers.
It started with tickling – the wild kind, where hands go crazy and it's easy to "accidentally" touch the taboo areas. It brewed embarrassment, shock, delight and discomfort in me as the flurry of his hands randomly grabbed my crotch or brushed my chest.
After the tickle-fighting phase stopped, my persistent brother kept trying to get another round going. John would coolly shut him down. With me, meanwhile, his touching had moved beyond tickle-fighting. When he and I were alone, he'd pull me onto his lap and touch me, over my jeans my shirt. He would quickly push me off if my mother came into the room, as if we had been merely playing some game. Eventually, he broke the clothing barrier and stroked my bare skin, but I don't remember that first time. Soon, he was doing it whenever he got the chance. Later, in my mother's second apartment, he started coming into my bedroom at night while I slept.
For two years I silently endured the touching on the living-room couch, in my bed, and once, in my mother's bed after I'd crawled in and fallen asleep as she bathed down the hall. I was jostled awake as he bounced his ass on the bed a couple of times. "Hey, pussycat," he said.
That was the one time he took my hand and guided it to his penis, covering my small hand with his. "Go like this," he whispered. I felt a new level of shock, revulsion and shame. I wanted to scream.
A year into the molestation, I grew curvier; I got my period. I grew my hair longer and developed a newfound care about what I wore. I set my eyes on a new boy in my class, and we eventually ended up going around – the name everyone in our school used for dating. Those days of tentative touches and learning to kiss made what was happening with John feel even more abnormal and unwanted. Desperate for some way to stop it without the embarrassment of telling my parents, I told my boyfriend that John was touching me and that I couldn't stand it. I don't know what I thought he could do about it, but I had hoped that it would make a difference. After he conferred with his best friend, they concluded I was inventing the story to make him jealous. I didn't bring it up again.
It was the first time I told anyone about what John was doing to me. It was the only time I confessed – in my confusion, I felt that, having kept the secret so far, I was criminally complicit – while it was happening. It could have been so different, though.
I mean, all of this should stay between you and me anyway but – well, you know what I mean don’t you. But, like please, O.K.? – in case we ever get to that. I’d like to be able to share personal thoughts with you some time and maybe share yours, but wouldn’t like them to stay around to get into the wrong hands. As for the rest of this garbage, it’s just a couple of girls gabbing right? So. Ok. Where was I?
The existence of this correspondence, and the secret that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, have been brutal, banged-up baggage to carry around. I always need to know where the letters are, and if I don't, I always find them. I know where they are now; I'm good.
Even now, at the age of 49, I rarely unpack this baggage from my past, knowing the confusion it contains. Inside are bothersome questions that I have elected to stuff down, zip up and lock away. Questions such as: Did being friends with John mean the molestation never mattered? Did I forgive it? Was there something wrong with me? What kind of girl would be friends with someone who did things to me that I hated?
Most of all: Why on earth would I correspond with this man for a decade, when his leaving the city could have put a tidy end to that chapter of my life?
My mom posed the question out of the blue. I was 11. She was sitting at her antique dressing table in her bedroom while I poked through her closet for clothes to borrow.
"Is something going on with you and John? Is he touching you?"
She must have sensed something, noticed our frequent proximity, a feeling in the air that something wasn't right.
It was a question I never thought would be asked and for which I was unprepared. I hesitated while my face burned. I dove into the lie of a child who is caught doing something wrong. A defiant no, my face scrunched in narrow-eyed indignation.
I've revisited that moment over and over as an adult, especially once I had children of my own. If she thought him capable of that, why did she continue to see him? Did my answer convince her it was all in her head? Did she ever pose the same question to him? Was she capable of confronting him? He was the guy who brought about the end of her marriage; I'm sure she wanted desperately for him to be worth it. Surely my answer was a relief.
But they started fighting more. Their relationship ended about six months later.
What made me veer away from the opportunity to confess – to, maybe, gain the solace of loved ones, to be relieved of the stress of wondering: When next?
For that matter, why didn't I tell after the first time John pulled me onto his lap, and put his hands on my private parts?
I know I was ashamed it had happened. He was an imposing man. I was afraid of what he might do if I told. What if he called me a liar? I also didn't want to hurt my mother. Her life was not easy. I didn't want her to think I was bad. I was also afraid that telling could mean that I'd be forbidden to see her. Dad already hated that John was around. He could rule Mom's house off-limits.
Here is the strangest mystery: I came to like John, back then, at least when he wasn't touching me. Our relationship existed in two separate rooms in my mind. The gross, secret stuff I wanted to forget and pretend didn't exist was on the dark side of the door; the fun, cool stuff like making art and joking around was on the light side.
Here is what I've learned since then: Predators look for kids in vulnerable situations. They're understanding and sympathetic. They take the time to gain their victim's friendship and trust by playing games, giving rides, bestowing gifts.
I don't know that he ever had a conscious plan to groom me, nor if anyone ever came before (or after) me. As I got older, I began to worry about the possibility that it wasn't just me. I agonized that it would be my fault if anyone came after me. Because I hadn't told.
Emboldened after a presentation given on sexual abuse at my high school, I told the visiting police officers about John. I showed them a drawing he'd sent that had cartoon demons rising from a campfire. I gave them his mailing address, a post-office box. I never heard a thing from the cops after that. For a while I was on tenterhooks waiting for my world to cave in after that move. But – nothing. I concluded they didn't believe me, or couldn't find him. In retrospect, I wonder why the hell they didn't talk to my parents. I didn't know how those things worked, so I didn't question it.
Later, in my early 20s, in letters and during a couple of phone calls, I tried to tease information from John about whether a woman he had told me he was seeing had a child. It didn't seem so.
John vanished from my life when I finished college. Our letters stopped because I stopped writing to him. I grew bored with his advice and annoyed by references he had begun making to the Bible and his encouraging me to turn to it myself. It was over.
Years later, when the Internet became a part of my regular life, I tried to track him down. His name is pretty generic. The Johns with his surname are legion.
Maybe I am fooling myself but I think John's relationship with me might have been a one-off – a twisted, complicated crush on a child. But he employed many well-known grooming techniques. He melted my physical and emotional boundaries by developing a friendship with me. He showed me attention and affection. He nicknamed me Kelly, and called me that exclusively. I felt like Kelly was cooler, braver, and more sophisticated than shy, awkward Karen. We developed inside jokes and invented silly writing styles when we'd sit and doodle. Until I felt he understood me better than anyone else.
The last time John touched me, I was nestled on the couch under a quilt, watching cartoons while my mom did the dishes in the next room. By then he had a routine. He sat next to me when she was occupied, and pulled me into his lap, unzipped my pants, slid his hand into my underwear. Again, I felt the sick fear of being caught – as though I was complicit – and hated myself for letting him touch me, as though my silence was consent.
But this time, I grabbed his hand out of my pants and threw it aside. "Quit it!" I whispered vehemently, then got up and sat on the other end of the couch. He didn't try it again. I was 12, almost 13.
Do you think about me when you hear a song from Grease?
Or when you’re lying on your bed Looking through your magazines And when you remember, If you remember, Was it such a bad memory?
Oh – oh, memories What makes me think you’re sorry That it isn’t the same as it was I really haven’t changed And I know that deep inside You’re the same
Even after he and my mother broke up, in early 1980, not long after he last touched me, and I had no reason to see him any more, John and I remained friends. Secretly.
A few times, I hung out in his two-room walk-up in the dilapidated brick apartment building some 15 blocks from where I lived. I'd wrestle my too-big powder-blue 10-speed from behind my house and ride it down Edmonton Trail. I'd sail helmetless in 1970s fashion – my prized rainbow suspenders, and a T-shirt with a peeling iron-on decal – at breakneck speeds. I'd stash my bike beside a dumpster and climb up the old stairwell. My stomach would jitter with guilty dread and excited anticipation. On the wooden door of his apartment, my mother had painted a little mural in gradient shades of blue and silver. It read "Johnny Four Spoons" in homage to the scant contents of his silverware drawer.
I understood that what I was doing would be viewed as wrong and weird. Someone that old shouldn't be my friend. I felt a shaky trust that he wouldn't do anything to me any more. It didn't stop John from making remarks about my developing body, remarks I thought of as "gross."
"You're getting bumpy," he'd say. He'd use double entendres that sailed over my head, and then snicker at my confusion. These caused me discomfort, and I would either tell him to shut up, or ignore him, then focus on whatever activity we were doing. Making an animated film, painting, going to the zoo.
Once, at his apartment, he took pictures of me in my trademark ball cap, the one I loved for its stuffed deer antlers. After snapping a few shots of me in the hat, John cajoled me into a gauzy white shirt for some "artistic" shots. I was reluctant and suspicious. He plied me with compliments about what a beautiful young lady I was becoming. He wanted to show me that, he said, since I couldn't see it. I was braless (as were many tween girls in that era, just like our own braless mothers), and sun flooded the room. I knew he could see through the shirt. That, obviously, was the point. I kept crossing my arms over my chest, and he begged me to put them down. "It's okay," he said. "It's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's beautiful." I didn't want to be beautiful. I just wanted it to be over, and to go back to my T-shirt and suspenders and doing fun things.
I never did get copies of the gauzy pictures, but he sent the others, with the cap, in the mail a year later. There is one extreme close-up of my young, round, lightly freckled face, in which John is visibly reflected in my right eye. I think that, despite the risky-enough business of writing me, he knew that images of a 13-year-old in a see-through top, if discovered, would probably lead to trouble.
Maybe someday when I get a place of my own you’ll be able to come out and see me. [My cat] is STILL in Alberta, and as far as I know is still well and happy. Sometimes I miss her enough to want to drop everything and go back – just to have her again. And you.
Had my lack of resistance encouraged an illusion that we were in some kind of love affair? I hated being molested, but I didn't hate the molester – not until a couple of years after he moved away, when, at nearly 15, my maturing adolescent brain began to suspect it had been screwed with.
I've read that, after abuse, the victim and perpetrator may end up maintaining a connection that serves each for different reasons. The predator fosters an illusion that he is the only one who fully understands the child or meets her needs. The child, meanwhile, may be convinced she especially understands the perpetrator. The two create a secrecy around their relationship, and a special connection is reinforced through private communications – phone calls, letters, e-mails and texts.
For me, putting an end to the molestation allowed the positive elements of the relationship – the shared humour, the non-sexual affection, the fun – to remain. Without the dark strings attached, being friends was acceptable. A nonsexual friendship re-established a sense of normalcy: I had taken control over my own abuse, and keeping in contact was my choice. Being touched had not been.
As for John, I am certain that my voluntary participation in a friendship served to help him reassure himself that what he had done wasn't so bad.
Under it all, something known as "boundary confusion" was at work. Such confusion can take the form of inappropriate closeness and familiarity with the perpetrator, or of being totally averse to closeness with him or anyone else.
When I read your letter I could see the light in your eyes You tried to be funny but your humour was thin disguise when I got to the part where you told me you didn’t think you’d miss me till I was gone it touched me deep inside you mean more than you realize didn’t think you’d need me didn’t know it mattered to you didn’t want to hurt you something I could never do
I was 13 when John moved 13 hours away to Vancouver Island, and that is when he began writing me letters as Johanna Schupf. It had been my suggestion that we write. That same year, my mom moved to a Vancouver suburb when her fiancé was transferred there; my dad remarried and my brother and I moved across the city, away from my childhood home and all my friends. We started new schools. Then, my dad and stepmother separated after six months of rocky marriage.
My life was lonely and filled with letterbox longing. I'd check each day for chubby envelopes full of my mother's elegantly looping script, along with the concertedly unsuspicious, neat lettering on John's small white envelopes, and the colourful mail of pen pals from around the world.
I'd quickly amassed a dozen pen pals through teen-magazine ads, so lonely were my days in my unfamiliar new neighbourhood and so fervent my wish for people to connect with. There were grammatically clunky letters from Karla in Kansas telling me about her farm, and felt-tipped tomes from tiny Gail in Connecticut, twice my age but a perpetual teenager, regaling me with stories about her department-store job.
John's letters were unremarkable in the camouflage of dozens of others. Still, he no doubt expected that all evidence of our correspondence would be eradicated.
I read, and I saved. I had a big secret, and the letters were proof of that. I wanted that proof, even if I never shared it with another soul for the rest of my life. I also hoped the letters would contain clues that would help a future me figure out what had happened. Why he'd done what he did.
Why do I feel compelled to sit here gazing at your little rectangular images when I’m supposed to be writing to you about something important and pressing? This idea occurred to me when I realized the co-incidence of two dates… The beginning of your spring break and the beginning of my apartment-sitting spell in Duncan came together because of some fateful hand; what happens next depends on us. I’d like to see you soon. Now I’m pen-tied again. Kay, so here it is, Kay? Do you think it would be possible for you to take a trip to Van Island by yourself for a few days to visit your ‘pen pals’ out here?
... If you could do it, what a rush! Just to be with you again.
In this letter, John sent me a cheque hoping I would buy a bus ticket. It was terrifying to think of taking that journey. I never cashed that cheque. But I reread the letter from time to time, and my young mind wondered what might have happened to me had I gone.
By then, I had aged out of the oblivious world of a sunny 1970s kid. Still, those were the days before childhood sexual-abuse-prevention campaigns, and for all I knew, this weird thing had ever happened only to me. But then, as part of a Grade 6 project, I began to pay attention to news on the radio and to scan newspaper headlines. That's when I came to understand more about what could happen to little girls who crossed paths with certain men. Men you might even know, but never thought were dangerous.
I came to know, eventually, that I was far from alone. The extent of the quiet kinship I share with others is shocking: According to a study released in 2007 by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, the rate of sexual assault against those aged 18 and under is more than five times higher than it is for adults – and those young victims are at the greatest risk of sexual assault at the hands of someone they know.
I found another picture of you today. The one of you sitting and reading movie-star magazines with Cinifer Jendy [a large rag doll he had given me]. You were so pretty then. Not that you aren’t now (probably). I was thinking tonight of the prairies again. How cold and harsh and dry I thought them to be once. How warm and beautiful the west coast would be to live. But now I seem to remember none of the coldness, only that my friends are now so far away.
With the weather behaving itself for the last couple of days and your letter arriving on Saturday, it’s been a perfect weekend. And what a letter. Don’t quite know how to describe what they do for me. Without getting – I don’t know – sappy? I just feel so damned good, as if with each one we become closer and with that closeness comes – sorry the words aren’t coming. I’m tongue-tied. Or maybe pen-tied.
I don’t remember when I started this, but I think it was a few weeks ago. I’m going to send it now and answer your letter in the next one. Wish I could send myself with it. Keep well, young love, and think of me. I’ll write again soon. Love John, xx
"Young love." It fed my ego to think someone was smitten with me. I spent a lot of time trying to get boys my own age interested. But John's writing those mushy words made me feel hard and mean. I didn't want them from him. I felt queasy about the feelings he shared, acting like we were more than just friends. He cast me in a role I hadn't been playing. I wasn't his kitten, his darlin' or his young love.
There is an entry in my journal written after that letter came. I called him an SOB. My lopsided ink tangle spoke of violence. I wanted to pound everything he'd done to me into him – the shame, violation, madness, isolation. But I also imagined seeing his eyes tearful and helpless as I pummelled him. I raged about the scars he'd left me with.
Although I had asked for the correspondence, sometimes I would finish reading the letters and whip them across the room, leaving them there till I calmed down. Some of them bear evidence of being enthusiastically crushed into balls, then smoothed out. I felt the same rush of anger, violation and shame after reading a letter as I had all the times his hand had been down my pants. In some ways, I was allowing him to do the same thing to me now, only psychically, long-distance. And I hated myself for allowing it.
And yet, after the heat had dissipated from my cheeks and the upset subsided, I would seek him out. Writing to him from far away made the friendship feel even safer. I'd go to my stationery stash, select a pen from my well-stocked jar, and get to work on a reply. When I sent him poems I had written, he'd tell me what he liked, and why. He listened. We had a mutual secret packed into matching baggage. I was not ready to unpack it, because I wanted to forget it ever happened. But I thought I might like to know, some day, why it did. I hoped I would become brave enough and bold enough to demand the answers.
In your letter you mentioned that you were depressed but couldn’t pin it down to any one reason; only a possible combination of a number of things. Boy-girl relationships can sure do it all right. Probably more than any other single cause, sexual relationships at whatever level – have created the most stress, anxiety or depression. And it’s only after it’s over and you are out of the relationship that you can realize how transient all things – all situations – and feelings can be. Only the memories are not.
One day in 1982, when I was nearly 15, I was walking home from school. I heard my name being called from a beat-up yellow Datsun parked on the street. I stooped to peek inside the open passenger window. Close-cropped greying hair, potbelly. Looked like Phil Collins but with a shorter, more Elmer Fudd-shaped chin. I didn't recognize the guy.
"Hey, can you tell me how to get to Chinook Drive?"
Shit, that was my street. My heart superballed around my stomach.
"Um, yeah…" I said, backing away.
Kelly. I turned around. The eyes.
"John?" He'd shaved his beard off.
"Want a ride home?"
I felt trapped because I knew him, I wrote to him. But I just wanted to run. My eyes darted desperately for friends, finding none. I actually got in the fucking car.
He said he was in town visiting friends. Small talk as he drove me home – a home that, until then, only his letters had seen. He asked if I would meet him downtown later to see a late matinee. A public place, I thought. "Okay."
We sat in a chilly theatre with about eight other people, watching Visiting Hours, a horror movie set in a hospital. The film was a blur to me. My mind was occupied with what to do after John's arm slid around my shoulders. After a while, I craned my neck, tensing my shoulders, signalling my discomfort. He removed his arm. A little later, his hand lay heavily on my thigh. I jiggled my knee. He crossed his arms. Leaned against me. I loudly cleared my throat.
When the movie was over, we walked into the blinkingly bright day and stood awkwardly on gum-plastered pavement. He offered me a ride, and I said I'd take the bus home. He hugged me goodbye. My arms hung by my sides.
That night, something snapped inside me. John had broken the distance barrier and it felt like a violation. The audacity of surprising me like that. I jabbed pen to paper. For the first time ever, I confronted him. Didn't he know I hadn't ever wanted him to touch me? He'd caused me pain and made me crazy! It took a while for a reply to arrive. It was convoluted and meandering. He wrote of being put over the edge by my letter. He said he'd gone into therapy. He wrote about whether pigs could fly and pondered whether the way he was toilet trained led to him being a deviant – a hint at the possibility he himself may have been mistreated? He gave me a vague impression that he'd been an in-patient somewhere for a few weeks. He sent a picture of himself standing with a friend's biplane.
His evasive, insulting reply angered and confused me. I was dissatisfied: I wanted an admission of guilt, an explanation and apology. I replied, telling him never to write me again.
And then a couple of months later , I sat down and wrote him a letter. I felt bad for hurting him. I worried he might kill himself. I know this sounds crazy now.
Hi, I’m not dead yet. At least most of me isn’t. Maybe parts of me are withering away, but maybe that’s good. Gives room for other things to grow. It feels a bit strange writing to you again. Didn’t think I’d be hearing from you any more.
... I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my shrink and I don’t think I’ve gotten anywhere at all. We keep getting onto subjects that have nothing to do with anything. But something must be working because I’ve started painting again. A bit. It’s hard.
... I keep reading over your letter trying to figure out why you wanted to write me again but decided if that’s what you want, that’s good enough. Sorry it’s not a very jolly letter, but this is all going to take some getting used to again. Still smarting from the last time. I guess you wouldn’t believe how hard this was to write. Or how long it took. So. I answered. Your turn. J.
I've seen the term "wounded attachment" connected to childhood sexual-abuse survivors. Depending on the age of the victim, children seek to please the adult, gain affection and attention, love, nurturing and trust. An abused child begins to believe that the only way to receive those things is to please the abuser. They'll unconsciously become attracted or attached to people and things that remind them of the wound or trauma. This habit, once established, often carries into adulthood.
Had I simply become attached to the closest reminder of that wound: John himself?
I suppose I reached out because I knew how bad depression felt. How ironic it was that I sought to comfort the very person who'd likely triggered mine. I'd struggled with what I now recognize as depression ever since I was about 10 – shortly after the abuse began.
In high school, I was the girl who smiled, loved to crack jokes, was a little shy, and got good grades. She was helpful, obedient, wrote letters to her beloved grandma in Winnipeg, and had a handful of girlfriends who were genuinely nice kids. Most people would never have guessed that she cut herself, drank, shoplifted thousands of dollars' worth of clothing from the mall.
And wrote letters to the grown man who had violated her as a girl.
I became very practised at living an undercover life. It was, in essence, an extension of the lie my life had become since John touched me. I had my own personal duplicity going: Good Karen and Real Karen. Karen and Kelly.
My mom had moved so far away that I now saw her only on school holidays. She had remarried and had a baby girl – the first of three beloved half-siblings – when I was 16. My dad was hardly around. My brother was lonely, and deeply missed our mom. He struggled to fit in with the kids in our new neighbourhood. We were both lost.
John and I continued to write to each other every few months, and along with the comedic absurdities I shared in an attempt to impress him with my brilliant mind, I also began to share my pervading sense of sadness.
I was awash in a sense of hopelessness that I would never get better, because I had been feeling that way for six years running, since my parents split and John had gotten to me. I filled my emptiness and sense of abandonment with things that lightened or dulled the pain or gave me a sense of relief, purpose or control. Things that gave me a rush.
I developed trichotillomania – compulsive hair pulling. I became a cutter. My wrists still carry the scars, but the words sketched by razor blade onto my legs are long gone. And I burned myself with car cigarette lighters. I drunkenly jumped off the rooftop patio of my house when I was 18 and broke a wrist. Bulimia sidled up to me in college. I've misused alcohol on and off since I was about 14.
When I was 16, I took a pile of sleeping pills and Tylenol, slugged it down with some Mateus, and went to school. About an hour later, sitting in psychology class, I began to feel nauseated. The teacher noticed and asked me if I was okay. I whispered that I had taken a bunch of pills. She drove me to the hospital, where I was hustled through Emergency, given something to induce vomiting, and puked up Unisom until my lips were stained blue with it.
I didn't really think I'd die that day. But I was fully ready to bust open and expose the mess that I was, just let the chips fall wherever the hell they might. Maybe someone would ask me what was so wrong with my life.
My dad picked me up from the hospital. He noticed the blue puke and gave me hell for taking his sleeping pills. And he was offended that I didn't feel I could talk to him if I had problems.
Later, he apologized, and the anxious strain in his voice implored me to explain why I was unhappy. Inside, I flashed to all the upheaval the truth would bring to my life: angry and upset parents, police, counsellors, people finding out, jail for John.
"I miss mom," I said.
Later, I wondered what my dad suspected or knew, based on things he'd say. I had befriended an adult counsellor at the youth drop-in centre at my school. He was 28, and I was 16. His name was Jim. I took a shine to him. He was funny and self-deprecating and made me feel good about myself. We'd go canoeing or out for tea. I told my dad about Jim, and he was, understandably, not thrilled with the friendship. I told him there was nothing weird going on. "Jims, Johns, they're all alike," he said.
There was fear in the pit of my stomach; what did he mean by that? I never asked. But I've wondered ever since.
I never felt compelled to divulge the truth of my abuse to my father. We had a rocky relationship when I was a teenager, but it improved over time, hit its stride when I had kids, and today he is one of my favourite people. He loves me and holds me in high regard. To tell him would devastate him and change his entire picture of me. I want to protect him from the truth, and myself from the fallout.
But I'm sick of keeping the secret.
When I was 16, I stood in the basement laundry room as my mother folded baby Malissa's tiny clothes, steeled to spill my six-year-old secret. I'd brought a few of John's letters with me for proof. Clutching them, I said, "I have something to tell you. Remember John?" She froze and looked up, serious as death. "He touched me. Lots of times. And he wrote me letters." I held my hand up weakly, presenting the letters.
"Oh, honey," she said. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was scared," I said.
She was flushed and flustered, brow furrowed, eyes anguished. She ran her hand absently across the folded clothing, smoothing its already flat planes. Then suddenly, she cocked her head. "Why on earth would you write to him?" A beat. "Did you like it or something?"
My gut turned over. All of a sudden, telling didn't feel like the right thing after all. Nobody wanted to know a truth like this.
She gathered herself. She said she was sorry that it happened. She hugged me. She took the letters from my hand.
When I asked for them back a day or two later, she told me she'd burned them. I felt angry, as though she'd stolen something. I'd come to view them as evidence I might use some day.
My mother admonished me. "You're not to write him any more. Understand?"
I said I wouldn't, knowing full well that I would.
Something inside me felt that she probably wouldn't tell my dad about John. She wouldn't risk his wrath.
Since that day, the subject of John has rarely come up with my mother.
I think, in a way, she has erased him from the timeline of her life.
Our relationship has two sides now – John split most things in my life in two, a duality with which I am familiar and now almost comfortable. I know my mother believes I "dwell" on the past and that I need to move on. To keep my problems to myself.
In this way, John victimized my parents, too. He touched their kid, and changed their world. Altered me. Changed how I loved my mom and dad . When kids tell, it is an enormous act of bravery and blind faith. Blindsided parents don't always react to disclosure with textbook parenting. When they find out someone messed with their child, they might feel betrayed, shocked, angry, disbelieving, afraid, sad, anxious, paranoid.
What kids most need to know is that they are still loved. They have to know it wasn't their fault. They need parents to help them believe that, too.
The letters to John stopped and started a couple of times over the decade that we wrote, and then ended for good in 1990, when I was 23.
His earliest missives had spoken tenderly of missing me. They had a light, starry-eyed-dreamer quality, seeming to describe a consensual romantic relationship. After I called him out on molesting me, his letters took on a more matter-of-fact tone. Later, he was more counsellor-like, full of philosophical views and, once in a while, acknowledgments of the damage he'd wreaked.
As for that tricky talisman – the mailing tube that I kept so close to me all these years: It contains a letter for my 20th birthday, and a pencil sketch that John rendered, based on a poem I'd sent to him years before.
The poem described a desperate girl who hanged herself from a bell tower. I had copied it out in one of the rainbow-hued inks I used for letter-writing, and I mailed it to him in a fat envelope full of news and absurd asides. I sealed it with spit and stickers, walked to my local pharmacy for postage, and dropped my missive into a squat red mailbox.
John's drawing was of a tear-stained girl, her mouth gaping in anguish, her hand clutching the noose at her neck. A shadowy figure stands menacingly behind her. I took it in, stunned. I did not even recognize at first that it was based on something I had written myself. All I saw was a portrait of our relationship.
A number of years ago, I wrote an article that included an interview with Dr. Susan Boon, an expert in interpersonal relationships. I was plumbing her brain for a semi-irreverent piece on my deep feeling of connection to musician Rick Springfield. What was it, I wondered, that made some fans glom onto certain celebrities and follow their careers for their whole lives? She suggested that some people imprint on individuals at times of great stress or strife. "There is a theory," she told me, "the 'otherness of self,' the notion that people who are important in our lives have been incorporated into our self-concepts – part of who you believe you are."
If a portion of me could become the "the Rick Springfield part," was it possible that I, just as unwittingly, could have a "John part?"
John's actions were indefensible; I am not here to plead his case. I want to know if he touched any other children. The prospect of that made me breathless a dozen years ago, after my own daughter turned 10 and I had a living reminder of what 10 was really like. I've tried to find his profile on Facebook, and I might have succeeded but I can't be sure. I've messaged that person, to no avail. For years, I have wanted to ask more questions of him, in an attempt to understand his point of view.
It's an uncomfortable idea: an abuse victim imprinted by her abuser. I hated John for many years. He made me hate myself.
But that power is gone now. There is no hate. Reading John's letters with adult eyes, I feel a tiny pang of pity that he's had to live with this for as long as I have. Looking at his letters in my midlife, I discover a loner floundering to find himself. Perhaps his connecting to a child seemed pure and simple to him. For everything he did, I suspect John has tried to evade or escape from his own crushing sense of shame and the guilt that he passed on to me. But I don't want the matching luggage. I'm unpacking mine now. I no longer need that shame.
Guess by now you’ve started your sessions with the psychiatrist – or have you? Hope you get things all worked out. You’ve never – couldn’t have – done anything to deserve the kind of punishment you’ve been giving yourself. I really feel terrible that you are going through this. I care about you. Right. Probably doesn’t mean anything to you but think of those who do. I wish I could help you deal with those things that are tearing you up, but please let somebody. I don’t know what else to say. Your letter rocked me pretty good. Guess I’ll just send this as it is. Don’t feel too funny. Just a little depressed. Rather a lot, actually. I’ll write again soon. Please take good care of yourself. John.
I know who he is. I know what he did. He knows who I am. He knows what he did. The letters bear witness to a forbidden friendship and are testament to a twisted time in my life. I can't erase the memories, and I won't destroy the letters.
But I want that nagging little ghost that lurks in my head – the secret that I have kept from most people all my life – to go away already. It wasn't my fault. It wasn't my fault. This is me. This happened to me.
Karen Durrie is a writer, editor and journalist living in Calgary. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada.
MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL