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Writer, editor, activist. Featured at HuffPo and MSNBC.com.  Creator of the original We Are Woman. Married mom. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

Once Upon A Time Before I Was Fifteen

Once upon a time, I was born in San Diego to a mother who was mentally and physically ill, and a father who was in way over his head. 

My first real memory is of red tights with a rip in the knee. For reasons I did not understand as a toddler, Dad had moved out, and Mom had a “friend” staying with us. Mom and the “friend” were taking me to Balboa Park, and Mom told me to use the bathroom before we left. I didn’t have to, so I said no. The “friend” pulled down those red tights with the rip in the knee and spanked me. As my mother stood and watched. I cried. As my mother stood and watched.

Much later, when I was an adult, Mom told me a story. Her mom, before an outing, had insisted my mother use the bathroom. Mom refused. My grandmother grabbed a wooden cane, forced Mom onto the toilet, and beat her legs until she urinated. Until her death, my mother never saw the connection between that event and what happened to me at the hands of her “friend.”

I was sick a lot as a kid. Pneumonia, chicken pox, measles, mumps, colds. I know now that stress affects the immune system, so even if I didn’t understand my life was awful, my body did. Mom used to get very angry when I was sick, because it took the focus off of her. Which added to the stress my body was already experiencing. And I would come down with something else. Mom would get angry. Around and around we went.

For the most part though, my childhood was great, because I was too young to understand what was going on in my family. I went to the beach, I was a good student, I had friends. We were Catholic, and belonged to St. Patrick’s parish where I also went to school. Until my parents discovered Cursillo.

Cursillo was, in the 1970s, Catholicism for hippies. Lots of singing, trips to the mountains, arts and crafts, getting in touch with your inner whatever. And it was during their first months with the Cursillo movement that my parents met Father Bernie Cassidy, pastor of Christ the King Church.

Father Bernie was cool. He was younger than the priests at St. Patrick’s, he made me an altar girl at Christ the King, and he let the Black Panthers host free breakfasts for kids at the church. Father Bernie started coming to our house for dinner almost every night. My mom cut his hair. For a little Catholic girl, this was amazing, as if we had our very own priest.

Father Bernie drove a blue Chevy Nova, and little by little, that car began appearing more and more often at our house, especially during the week. Specifically, during the day, when my dad was at work and I was at school. Again, I was a kid, and my brain was incapable of reasoning out why that blue Chevy Nova was parked at the curb all the time. But when I would ride my bike home from school, and round the corner to see Father Bernie’s car, something told me to keep riding. Go to the restaurant my friend Sylvia’s parents owned. Go to Chrissy’s house. Just keep going. And I did, never knowing why.

When I was thirteen, my father announced we were moving to Minnesota. He said it was for a new job with Honeywell. I became profoundly depressed. San Diego was where all my friends were, where I was planning on going to high school. I didn’t want to move to another state, start a new school, give up everything.

We sold the house, packed the car, and drove to Minneapolis. Our new house was nice, near a lake, but it didn’t have a pool. A lake was not the ocean. And my new school was awful. I was bullied, harassed, friendless, and my grades began to decline. I ran away from home. I was depressed all the time.

My mother had a stroke after we moved to Minneapolis. One morning, I came downstairs to kiss her goodbye before school, and she was vacantly staring at the wall. Later that day, Dad told me she had no idea who I was that morning. She had aphasia for about a year, mixing up words and phrases (thinking “sunlight” but it came out “table”). I thought the stroke was somehow related to the rheumatoid arthritis, and I was partly right. It was also due to immense and constant stress.

In the winter of 1981, I was digging around my mother’s closet, looking for boxes of photos. What I found was a letter she had written to the San Diego archdiocese, detailing her two-year affair with Father Bernie. That’s why we moved, you see, to get my mother away from her priest. Dad’s new job was secondary.

All the pieces fell into place after reading that letter. Why she would disappear for days and days. Why I rode past the house when the blue Chevy Nova was parked at the curb. Why my parents would argue about Father Bernie. And I became enraged and more depressed. But in June of 1981, I found what I believed would save me.

I enrolled in a summer school program at Children’s Theatre School in Minneapolis. CTC was nationally renowned, with an acting school and a technical school. Spectacularly failing my audition for the acting school, I joined the tech program to learn theatrical lighting and electrics. I begged my parents to let me leave my all-girl Catholic high school to attend Children’s Theatre Conservatory School in the fall. They acquiesced, and in August of that year, I became a full-time technical theater student.

Once upon a time, I was a fifteen-year-old girl living a dream. Tech classes followed by math, English, and biology, then into the lighting booth, or up on the catwalks. The light and sound booths were next to each other, separated by a door that was only closed during performances. Lighting instructors and sound instructors were constantly wandering back and forth between booths, and that’s how I met Stephen Adamczak.
Adamczak was a sound designer and teacher. He was knowledgeable, he was nice, and he paid attention to me. As a na├»ve Catholic girl, I didn’t realize the danger, until one night when he offered me a ride home. He drove down Knox Avenue, past my house, and parked near Lake Harriet. Then he tried to rape me.

Once upon a time, I was too young to fight back against the people trying to destroy me. But that night, I fought like hell. I fought so hard that as I kicked Adamczak, using his body to propel myself into the passenger door and wrench it open, I fell out onto the curb. I never told my parents. I had learned they were not safe.

Once upon a time, I was my trauma. I wore it like a blanket, wrapped around my broken body. I cut myself, I tried to end my own life, I engaged in extremely unsafe behavior. I was bulimic. I needed control, and since I could not control what others did to me, I would control what I could do to myself.

Now I am not my trauma, I am a survivor of trauma. My mother is dead, Adamczak is dead, I no longer cut or binge and purge, I am as healed as I can be, and like a piece of Japanese pottery, I am held together with gold, more beautiful broken than I ever was whole.

1 comment:

  1. Erin, this is heartbreaking, and brave beyond words. There are so many untold stories, but few whose tellers have the articulateness and courage to tell them as you have. Andy


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Once Upon A Time Before I Was Fifteen

Once upon a time, I was born in San Diego to a mother who was mentally and physically ill, and a father who was in way over his head....