I was a child, still in elementary school, when it happened. For years afterwards it didn’t seem important. So I compulsively picked the skin of my lips until they bled (just a bad habit). So I was closed off and withdrawn, and stopped talking altogether at school for a couple of years (just shy). So I’d lash out in rage when my family addressed me during one of the spacey, fugue-like states I went into (aren’t all teenagers moody?). I dreaded getting into bed at night because once in it I’d become afraid – of what? I didn’t know exactly. I believed I was grotesquely ugly, and remember getting up the nerve to ask one of my friends in private, ‘What’s wrong with the way I look?’
But it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I made the connection between these things and what had happened to me. I was in an MFA program, and my partner at the time brought home a book from a yard sale, a 1989 title by Louise DeSalvo called Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. He knew I’d been studying Woolf’s writing. I remember not liking the title of the book – the phrase ‘sexual abuse’ repelled me – but feeling obligated to look at it because I wanted him to know I appreciated him getting it for me. Propped on the arm of the couch in our living room, scanning the pages, I paused over the following passage describing a disclosure Woolf made to her memoir club about her half-brother George Duckworth, who’d helped care for Woolf and her sister after the death of their mother. Duckworth was fourteen years Woolf’s senior, making him a grown man at the period referred to in this passage. Woolf was thirteen:
‘She tells how, in a “confused whirlpool of sensation” she undressed in her room in her adolescence, how she stretched out on her bed to fall asleep, and how George invaded her room: “creaking stealthily, the door opened; treading gingerly, someone entered”. “ ‘Who?’ I cried. ‘Don’t be frightened,’ George whispered. ‘And don’t turn on the light, oh beloved.’ Beloved – and he flung himself on my bed, and took me in his arms.” She wanted to inform the men who were present that her adolescence was very different from theirs. She wanted to explain that her “madness” after her mother’s death was the direct outcome of her abuse.’
At ‘don’t turn on the light’, something in my brain stalled. I stopped reading, sat there for a moment staring down at the page, and then put the book aside to go into the bathroom. Then I returned to the living room and told my partner that, like Woolf, I’d been sexually abused and that, like Woolf’s brother, the guy who’d abused me had wanted the light out. ‘Except he had me turn it off,’ I said. ‘He told me it made his head hurt, and I believed him.’
My partner looked sympathetic but also scared, scared in the way of a person who has no idea what to do about the information that’s just been presented to him. I retreated back into the bathroom to sit on the floor and cry. I don’t think I was crying because of what had happened to me as a child – that has always stirred in me bafflement more than anything else – but rather because of how uncomfortable I’d made him, just as I’d made the adult I’d confided in uncomfortable when I told them, in the fifth grade, that I thought I’d been molested by this man, N, a trusted family friend I’d been left in the care of. The realization had come from a sex ed seminar my class had attended at the science center. They had responded that I must have liked whatever it was to only be bringing it up now, and then that I shouldn’t be alone with N anymore.
And just like that, I was led to think, as many women have been led to think, that having been sexually abused was my problem, that most likely I was imagining it, that I should’ve never brought it up in the first place. N had only been playing around with me – ‘wrestling’ as he’d called it – and the symptoms of trauma I’d suffered were just part of who I was. He had been college-aged, big and athletic and was considered handsome, the object of crushes from those his own age. Why would a guy like that have sexually abused a little girl? For years, N, along with his family, continued to come stay with our family and ours with his. The man who raped me was around on holidays, shared the dinner table, and even knew where the spare key to our house was kept. Even when N was accused of date rape, I (a teenager by then) figured it must have been some misunderstanding – after all, he didn’t end up going to jail for it. What surprises me now is not that I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and rape, but how easily it folded into the fabric of my normal life. That it happened in my own bedroom, in my own bed, more than once, when I was left with a trusted family friend in the evening when the other adults went out. That my only protest was ‘it’s starting to hurt now’.
Woolf wrote and spoke openly about George’s abuse and the trauma it inflicted on her. In ‘22 Hyde Park Gate’, she describes feeling like an ‘unfortunate minnow shut up in the same tank with an unwieldy and turbulent whale’, and of how tangled in everyday life her own abuse was:
‘It was usually said that he was father and mother, sister and brother in one – and all the old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia added with one accord that Heaven had blessed those poor Stephen girls beyond belief and it remained for them to prove that they were worthy of such devotion . . . Yes, the old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia never knew that George Duckworth was not only father and mother, brother and sister to those poor Stephen girls; he was their lover also.’
In ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Woolf writes of her memories of George’s molestation, ‘I remember resenting, disliking it – what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling? It must have been strong, since I still recall it. This seems to show that a feeling about certain parts of the body; how they must not be touched; how it is wrong to allow them to be touched; must be instinctive.’ According to DeSalvo, the molestation only ended after Woolf’s sister Vanessa, who was also a victim of George’s abuse, reported it to their doctor.
In rereading Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work, though, I’ve learned that many Woolf biographers have nonetheless suggested that she fantasized George’s abuse – that it was, if not totally a product of her imagination, something she invited. George, according to Lyndall Gordon’s 1984 biography, Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, ‘was thought very handsome and his combination of sensual lips and considerate manners made him the pet of society ladies’. In his 1972 biography of Woolf, her nephew, Quentin Bell, acknowledges the damage caused by George’s ‘fondlings and fumblings’ – ‘Virginia felt that George had spoilt her life before it had fairly begun’. But Bell seems to attribute George’s abuse to Virginia’s timid character: ‘Naturally shy in sexual matters,’ he writes, ‘she was from this time terrified back into a posture of frozen and defensive panic.’ DeSalvo relays a passage from Jean O. Love’s book Sources of Madness and Art, from 1977: ‘as Virginia both wanted and liked affection from George [she] imagined that he had made erotic advances when he was merely being kind and innocently affectionate.’ Quoting the American psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, an expert on incest and traumatic stress, DeSalvo notes that even Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of Woolf, was hesitant to acknowledge his discovery of the prevalence of sexual abuse because, in Herman’s words, ‘of what it implied about the behavior of respectable family men’.
Up until very recently, people have much preferred blaming girls and women to seeing respectable men lose their standing. Yet one wonders how even the most skeptical audiences could assume that George’s abuse was something Woolf made up, or something she, at that age and level of experience, understood enough to know she actually wanted it. On the other hand, it is easy for me to understand why people deny that abuse happens. The person I told, who was kind, exceptionally generous, and whose sense of compassion taught me what I most needed to become a writer, did not want to let themselves believe that N, who was like a nephew to them, could have done such a thing to me, or that I could have been damaged. They certainly could not have imagined that N would later, in his twenties, get a fourteen-year-old girl pregnant. For quite some time, it has felt much safer to many people to attribute abuse to fantasy or the need for attention than to face the possibility that it’s real. As a result, the victims become encouraged to swallow the truth, to deny it even to ourselves. In ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Woolf describes the shame she feels when looking at her reflection in the mirror in the hall of the house where George once molested her. When it comes to pleasure and beauty, she is able to feel ‘ecstasies and raptures spontaneously and intensely and without any shame or the least sense of guilt, so long as they were disconnected with my own body’, she writes. ‘I must have been ashamed or afraid of my own body.’
As a twenty-something I never finished reading Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work, and after telling my partner about my own abuse I stopped consciously thinking about it. But I was beginning in earnest to write fiction, and it was through my fiction – in which I sought emotional truths – that I would begin to move closer and closer to facing what had happened to me. In doing this, one part of myself was teaching the other to see. I would continue to face challenges resulting from the abuse, but they were no longer an amorphous darkness. Now, for the first time, they had shapes that could be described and addressed. Because I had read about another woman being told to keep a light off, because this woman, despite living in an age where she was taught to suffer silently, had spoken out, and because someone else had taken it seriously enough to write a book devoted to it, a light had been switched on for good.
April Ayers Lawson is the author of Virgin: and Other Stories, available now from Granta Books.