I pulled the maroon mini-curtain away from the van window to see how close we were. After making the seventeen-hour drive from Ohio the day after Christmas, driving up to my abuela’s house in Miami, Florida always felt like entering a whole new world. The Cumbia music shuffled out along with her house slippers and the smell of her tamales. I lived with my parents and older sister on the same country road as my maternal grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. This yearly adventure was the only time I’d see the equivalent on my dad’s side of the family. He was the only one from his family go to Ohio after their 1970s arrival in the U.S. from Guatemala. Returning to all things familiar is a weighty gift.
One of my cousins was only a few months older than me and playing with him was like having a brother for one week of the year. Even at age five he was already my informal navigator. I leaned on his expertise to traverse the Guatemalan part of my cultural heritage and for boy-girl relational dynamics. This cousin and his dad lived there with my abuela, so it seemed fine when he suggested we watch cartoons in her room, sitting on her bed. Then he told me to hide under the bed with him so he could show me a new game.
I didn’t like the game.
There were no turns to take in this game, no plastic pieces or colorful board to unfold.
My body became the toy. He played a game of transformers, taking a God-given gift and twisting it into something scary. I still don’t know where he learned about the private parts that make girls different than boys, or first saw fingers used in a way to discover the difference first hand, or how he knew tongues could go into other people’s mouths too. I still don’t know if he had been abused or seen images he didn’t know how to interpret. But the invasive and brazen way he took over went far beyond childhood curiosity, and somehow he’d already learned the most important rule of this game: “Don’t tell anyone or we’ll both be in big trouble.”
My body froze as my mind attempted to find equilibrium and make sense of the novel sensations. Was this normal play? Why did I immediately know it was wrong but feel so powerless to choose either of my supposedly natural responses of fight or flight? I went completely still, staring up at dust-covered metal bars and springs wondering when this game would be over. It’s inexplicable how the violation of innocence affects the mind, making seemingly natural responses like calling for help or fighting back so inaccessible they might as well be nonexistent. It was a fundamental evil occurring in a complete vacuum of information. I didn’t know for sure that I needed to call for help. It felt so very wrong and scary, but I had no information that told me I should fight back. I didn’t even have a name for the part of my body being touched. What I did know was that I wanted to be loved and liked, included and trusted. I knew I wanted to avoid punishment and embarrassment. Sadly, the secrecy that I hoped would keep shame away was the means by which it invaded.
My body was groped but my identity took the greatest impact. Shame latched on and smothered. Was my body meant for others now? My lips obeyed the shame and locked the secret in.
I wanted to drive away and leave it behind, let it be that yucky thing that happened once in a world far away. I wasn’t given a choice under the bed, so I took solace in the one I could make- forget about it and never, ever tell.
But the choice to hold it changed who I was. There was always a secret now that only I knew. Love had become conditional and the people who loved me most didn’t even know. The lie of “if they really knew” had moved in, and it is one hell of a houseguest. I was somehow paying penance, earning approval. Could I tip the scales far enough in my favor that it would be okay if people found out? Could my good girl identity save me?
Behind closed doors, though, the innate need for homeostasis won out. This had happened to me. Somewhere it had to be true, so I played sexual games with my Cabbage Patch doll. I tried to see and understand my own body. What were these hidden parts? How could obedient hands and efficient feet live so close to the dirty and bad? Since young children didn’t need “the talk,” I never had a conversation where I’d find the answers. And Christmas always comes around again.
Christmas comes every year.
The game didn’t go away. I remember trying to avoid eye contact with my cousin after I learned he’d nod his head toward my abuela’s room. “Let’s play boyfriend and girlfriend,” became his code. Even today I feel the culpability linked to complicity. I must have been at fault if it happened more than once. But to resist would have meant revealing it all. The shameful secret had taken root and blame had been assigned. It was all my fault too, from the beginning.
Just get it over with and move on, it’ll be fine. It’s not that big of a deal. Seeing life go on around me confirmed the lie that this touching and secrecy must be normal. Being able to go to church, know the right answers in school, and have friends meant I wasn’t messed up. Maybe this game was just what boys and girls did. Maybe even girls and girls.
I can’t remember how many times my cousin abused me, but I remember that he wouldn’t be the last or only. I wondered what message I must somehow be broadcasting. Before I finished elementary school another playmate stood in my bedroom with his curious hand down the front of my pants. I felt so defeated, resigned. This is what my body was for. Compartmentalized functions. Some for public. Some for private. Always for others.
Entering high school and youth group, I was finally old enough to merit information about sexuality. The silence from adults was broken, but my own still was not.
Well-meaning attempts to keep me pure outlined only two options: broken or not. Damaged goods or fine china. Behavioral checklists were meant to protect, but they failed to give me wisdom rooted in the God-man who designed my sexuality as he knit my body together. They also failed to consider what pain may have already been a part of my past. I heard so much about what Jesus had done for my soul but was confused about how he felt about my body and what it remembered.
I didn’t have to carry it anymore.
Then one day he showed me. I was twenty four, married to the man I met at a Christian university, in a full-time doctoral Psychology program, living in the same dissonance and mired in pornography use. I hated the cycle I was in: choose sin because it felt good, feel guilt and shame, vow to try harder and do better, hide the lie, choose sin again, repeat. I believed that Jesus was disgusted with me, that he had distanced himself from me. I wanted desperately to finally be good enough to be near him, but I couldn’t seem to fight my way there. So he came to get me.
As I was choosing sin, he walked up to me at my computer and showed me that he was not far off. He was right there, seeing it all. Seeing me. And loving me. He didn’t shame or punish me. Instead he showed me that he had become those very things on my behalf. And they couldn’t hold him.
I didn’t have to carry it anymore, I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I broke the silence and told my husband about the game under the bed. My body curled up instinctively as I sobbed out the secret. He held me, believed me, wept with me, and wrapped a blanket protectively around me. In the safety I had always craved, I slowly learned more about who God really is and how he made all of me. I learned to understand my past rightly and allow the Holy Spirit to lovingly uproot the poisonous vines of shame and self-condemnation. I could repent where needed, forgive and pray for others’ repentance where needed, and finally see my body as a gift.
God put on a human body and didn’t begrudge it. He allowed it to be abused and broken so mine could be free. He walked out of the tomb and was raised bodily to heaven, so I can believe my body matters too.
Cover photo by Kira auf der Heide.