Feminism India

I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. This is my story.

I was 13. My mom had gotten me my first bra a month ago. I had my periods a total of 3 times. I was young and naive.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as molestation or abuse. The only word I’ve heard of in that spectrum was rape, and my understanding of what qualifies as rape was very crude and vague. I was only a child.

This is going to be long, be warned. I will tell you how it happened. Not because this will make a good story but because telling this story to the world may help me finally forgive myself. Maybe.

This deep, dark secret of mine demands to be let out. I am going anonymous because it's easier this way.

My abuser was a family friend, no surprises there. Our family has known his for a couple of years and we frequently visited each other's homes. He was much older than my own brother but not old enough to be called uncle. I called him ‘Chettan’, an affectionate slang for elder brother. He was very huge, even for a guy. Everyone thought him a kind and helpful giant of a man. He talked a lot. I, like the rest of my family, was very fond of him.

As it happened, I was asking my mom if she would oil my hair when he came for a visit. He was a regular visitor and friend and when I went on badgering my mother to oil my scalp, he offered to do it for me. I was happy to let him. He was an Ayurveda practitioner and enjoyed sharing his trivia. As he thoroughly oiled my hair with his big hands, I told my mother to watch and learn! It felt good. He told me that I have strong curls and my hair needs oil specially prepared for its kind. When he offered to lend me some from his supply if I stopped by his place, I was excited. I asked my mom if I could go, please. He assured her that he has a preparation that could tame my unruly hair. One application was all it needed, and it would be no bother to him at all. Together, we convinced my mom to let me and my sister drop by his place on our way from Sunday school. That Sunday, I carried a box of homemade sweets with me for Aunty (his mother) and his nephew, who was barely two at the time. We knew each other very well after all.

I expected him to give me a bottle of this precious concoction but he told me it should be applied the proper way. I thought he meant to just apply the oil to my hair while I would sit and chat with Aunty but was surprised when he asked me to climb on the massage table in his treatment room. He had an entire treatment room in his house, complete with a massage table, steam bath and shelves full of oils and Ayurvedic medicines. I obliged anyway, surprised that he was giving me a proper scalp treatment at all. He sifted through my hair, told me I had unnaturally dry scalp and it's a surprise that I have healthy skin at all. He told me that I am lucky to get the treatment now before it was too late and the dryness spread and make my skin go all wrinkled. I marvelled at my luck.

That was pretty much the way everything else happened that day. He kept a steady commentary of how he was helping me and how lucky I am to be diagnosed before it was too late. I nodded, convinced. He told me other such instances when he treated others for all kinds of ailments and miraculously cured them all. I politely nodded. When he asked me to remove my dress so that it won’t be ruined by the oil, I disagreed. I told him that it's an old dress anyway and a little oil spill won’t be a problem.

He told me I should remove it because the dress gets in his way. He also joked that even the most prudish folk will be asked to wear nothing but a loin cloth before stepping onto the sacred Ayurveda room even for something as simple as a toothache. And he walked out of the room, carefully closing the door so that I may change. I didn’t want to change out of my clothes but also didn’t wish to seem like a prissy. It was after all the treatment norm, right? I removed my shirt, grateful that my petticoat was neat. Little did I know that I had signed up for the worst day of my existence.

He frowned when he saw that I was wearing my petticoat but didn’t say anything. He launched into one of his stories and started massaging my scalp. As his fingers casually moved to the nape of my neck and then to my shoulders, I stiffened. He complained that I am not relaxed enough and that my posture might injure my bones. When he asked me if he could remove my bra to properly get rid of the knots in my shoulder, I refused. He was starting to scare me. I told him that I don’t want my shoulders massaged. That I should get going because my mom will be expecting me at home. That my head message was nice, thank you, but it is getting late. That my little sister was probably bored and I wanted to chat with Aunty. He shrugged off all my excuses. He told me that Aunty was taking her afternoon nap and I better not disturb her and the baby now. He told me how thoughtful he was to let my sister watch ‘The Little Mermaid’ on TV so she won’t get bored.

I knew by then that something was very off and this definitely wasn’t part of the scalp treatment. But I didn’t know how to make him stop. What little I’ve heard about rape replayed in my head and I was scared that he might do something worse with no-one to stop him. I tried calling for my sister but the TV blaring in the other room drowned my voice. I felt a growing dread in the stomach that I tried to ignore. I tried to convince myself that this was a bizarre treatment was all.

He unhooked my bra and squeezed my breasts even as I told him to stop. He didn’t seem to hear and continued with his story of the time he cured an older girl who injured her chest after a fall from a bicycle. Knowing that it won’t matter anyway, I shut up and waited for the heavy hands to stop pinching the nipples.

He peeled off my Hello Kitty underwear and I whimpered no. He didn’t appear to hear and proceeded to finger me. I wish I had cried. Or screamed. Or loudly protested and thrashed and bit him until he left me alone. Instead, I lay there, numb, wishing fervently for it to be over. All I remember was him inserting his fingers a couple of times and the tight, intense discomfort I felt despite all that oil sloshed over me. That was the first time I realized that there’s another hole down there. I wished it didn’t because that thing bloody hurt.

I shut my eyes tight as his breathing grew laboured and a heavy drop of sweat fell on my shoulder. I was too numb to be repulsed by anything anymore. I kept wishing with everything I had to let it all be over soon. But soon wouldn’t come soon enough.

When he finally let himself out for a moment and I heard the bathroom door bang shut, I hurriedly put my clothes back on. I was a naive kid who was clueless about arousal, ejaculation or even that a man’s penis is much different from the pink finger-like boo-boo of baby boys. I didn’t care what he was doing inside the bathroom. I was just grateful to have my clothes back on.

When he came back and saw that I was dressed, he didn’t seem surprised. He casually asked if I want a foot-rub. I told him no and walked towards the door that he had bolted shut earlier. He asked if I was planning to tell everything to my mother and I replied I will. He tried to talk me out saying she wouldn’t understand. I nodded, ready to promise anything if only he would let me out.

Once outside the room, I was taken aback by how normal everything else seemed. My sister was watching TV and Aunty was in the kitchen making tea for everyone. He offered to walk us home and my mumbled protest was ignored, again. On our way home, he was his usual self, telling stories that amused my sister and I pretended to listen.

Once home, I remember how the first thing I did was to shut myself in the bathroom and wash every trace of the slimy oil away. I scrubbed and scrubbed till I became sore. I refused to think of what had just happened. I resolved to tell my mom everything.

However, I never did. My mother did ask me about the scalp treatment as she was surprised to learn that he didn’t just give me a bottle of oil but also applied it in my head. I told her it was nothing, just oiling my hair like he did once before. I surprised myself with the lie that rolled of my tongue. Convinced by my innocent account, she paid him for the treatment and he left.

It has been 12 years since. My family still do not know that their daughter was molested by a person they considered their friend. Last year, I heard that he was in an accident and I fervently wished he would die. He didn’t.

All this time, I desperately told myself that it was an unusual treatment and nothing more. I pushed the memories to the back of my head until I almost forgot all about it. Except that I never forgot. At odd times I remember flashes but refuse to dwell on it. It was while writing this piece that I allowed myself to remember. I now admit to myself what I’ve always known. Nothing he said or did that day was excusable. I was brutally violated that day at the age of thirteen.

I distinctly remember how he kept telling me instances where people were really innocent but someone says something and everyone else gets the “wrong idea”. He urged me to not tell anyone about his little treatment because they might misunderstand us. ‘Us’, like we were partners in whatever happened. Like I allowed him, enjoyed it even. I know that wasn’t the truth but I could never shake off the threat implied. If I were to tell somebody, wouldn’t they blame me? His threat worked. I never told anyone.

I was ashamed. I have read columns about coping with childhood sexual abuse and they tell you there is no shame for what was done to you. But it's impossible to believe that. I was ashamed of what happened. I was ashamed to tell my parents. And then I was ashamed because I didn’t tell them knowing fully well that they will support me in every way possible. Ashamed that I have seen him again more times than I can count, all under normal circumstances but I stood frozen on the spot. Ashamed that I couldn’t look him in the eye and tell him ‘I know what you did was wrong’. Ashamed that I hoped he, HE would forget the whole episode and never think of me that way again. Ashamed that I didn’t ‘out’ him. Ashamed because my silence may have cost another child’s innocence. I cannot even bear to think that he might have abused another child because I didn’t expose him for what he was.

It took me 12 years to admit that I was assaulted and I still haven’t forgiven myself for letting him do that to me. Out of nowhere, I am sometimes overcome with the feelings of being dirty and unworthy. People who have been sexually abused as children tend to block out those memories for a long time. I read that they might suffer emotional abreactions; reliving the emotions of the abuse when confronted with specific stimuli. It’s not the same for everyone but I now understand how my intolerance towards certain things sprung from that. Why I am irrationally afraid of very large men, for instance.

I can’t tolerate having water hit me in the face. I just can’t. And I cannot stand when someone restraints me even for harmless fun. I wildly thrash at them not caring if I hit someone in my urge to get out of their grips. I have a very sensitive gag reflex that I always thought was annoying but my recent readings suggest it to be a common symptom in childhood abuse survivors.

I realize that I have been inflicted an injury so deeply wounding and traumatizing that it requires more resolution than reading books, self-help groups or undertaking the intellectual analysis. Children or adults who have been sexually abused, do not simply ‘get over’ the devastation. I was robbed of the opportunity to develop into a healthy, adjusted adult. The damage is profound, extensive and pervasive. 

I find that talking about the abuse is the hardest part of healing. I flinch at the odd flashes but cannot bring myself to tell how or why to even the people I hold most dear. Maybe I never shall heal fully. But now that the genie is out of the bottle, I am not going to let it get the better of me ever again. I am not dirty.