Girl in a blue velvet dress – novel

Photocredit: Shutter Daddy on Flickr

This is another installment of my novel, in progress. More pieces here.

Sarah waited in a vinyl-covered, yet surprisingly comfortable chair at the edge of the central court. The mall quiet enough in this second week of December to worry even the most seasoned mall retailer. The windows were bright and filled with shiny sparkly things that made even environmentally obsessed Sarah want to buy shiny sparkly things she didn’t need just to feel that infectious Christmas shopping happiness.

A regular stream of parents trickled slowly into the exit line for Santa’s photo gallery, each told by the somehow still smiling staff to go to the poorly marked entrance line, surrounded by a greenish fabric covered rope. One of these groupings was a mother, father and what looked like grandparents surrounding in adoration a small girl in a stroller. The girl, who basked in a beam of adoration as bright as Christ in the manger, wore a beautiful royal blue velvet dress. Sarah was struck by how perfect she looked, how happy. The colour of her little dress, neither too plain nor too fussy, in a rich, deep colour of plush velvet that looked luxuriously soft. Her rosy, peaches and cream cheeks and bright delighted blue eyes smiled up into the love that was her due. Her daddy lifted her from the stroller and carried her around to the correct entrance.

Sarah found her eyes and then her cheeks, suddenly wet. All that love for a little girl. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. She thought back in her mind to all the pictures that had been taken of her as an infant, and could only recall ever seing one. In the picture, a smiling, chubby baby is surrounded by a papasan chair in black and white. The baby, herself probably before she experienced any severe damage, is wearing a plain white terry-cloth onesie. There is no-one holding her or gazing adoringly at her, except perhaps the person taking the photo.

In the mall, it didn’t seem to matter that she was crying, that the man in the chair next to her might notice, that someone walking by might notice. It just didn’t matter.  Sometimes you have to let people see, she told herself.

Her partner walked toward her with a brisk, businesslike walk. Places to go, shopping to do, his body posture said to the world. She looked at him and decided to let him see it too. She said “there was a little girl in a blue velvet dress. She looked so loved it made me cry”.

Her partner frowned. “cry?” he asked, but not like he really wanted to know.

She tried again “I don’t think anyone ever took me to take a picture with Santa Claus”. What she meant was, “no-one took pictures of me because they thought I was wonderful and that all the relatives needed a copy”.

Her partner began walking, his body language lacking any encouragement to continue. Sarah gave up and started a conversation about the groceries they needed to buy.  It seemed like nothing much had changed.

A Sexual Abuse Survivor’s RCMP statement – novel

This is another excerpt from what I’ve been writing this month for national novel writing month. I can’t seem to make much of a transition to fiction again this year. Some of this is blatantly ripped off from my life, but it’s interesting to see it from the perspective as part of a story. Those of you who have read the non-fiction parts of my blog will no doubt recognize parts of the story. However, some of it is completely fiction, and it’s meant to be fiction, although there’s a lot of truth in it. 

This is another installment of my novel, in progress. More pieces here.

Sarah sat in the beige hallway waiting room and looked at the woman across from her. Zelia had long black hair, liberally threaded with grey, which she wore unbound, shoulder length around a thin face. She wore no makeup, and a pair of dangly shell earings. Her black pants were paired with a knit shirt and cardigan in rust tones, and her shoes looked good for walking. She had a soft accent, south African it sounded like. Sarah didn’t want to ask, she thought speaking to a white person from South Africa might bring up uncomfortable topics, and she needed this woman as an ally. They hadn’t known each other long. 

Zelia had met with Sarah in the offices at the family service centre and had explained what would happen. Sarah didn’t tell her her story, but Zelia was aware of the basics. Zelia said the officer might not let her be in the room when she told her story, but she would come with her, and wait for her outside if she couldn’t be there in the room.

Sarah wore black pants and a long sleeved black turtleneck. Her skin fully covered like this made her feel safer,  more protected, although she knew even in this she was still a target. Her flat heeled shoes made her feel more grounded, and she wore thick soft socks that caressed the one part of her body she could easily love. Her light brown hair was tied back with two metal clips in a fashion more practical than fashionable. She had blue eyes that boys had told her were beautiful often enough that she thought it might have some truth in it. She carried her tall frame with a bit of a slump, perhaps so that people wouldn’t notice how tall she was. She had her grandmother’s skin, fair and translucent like thin porcelain. She liked it too, unless it was flushed red with embarassment or exertion, when the translucence failed to mask dark blotchy redness.  She wore  no makeup. Why invite male attention she desperately didn’t know how to field? Today, all she wanted was to look respectable, believeable, and feel safe. She’d have to settle for one out of two.

A door opened and a tall RCMP officer in a blue uniform entered. Miss Norland, would you come with me please”.

Sarah thought “I thought you’d be a woman, don’t they have women officers for this?” She wasn’t sure she could be alone in a room with a male police officer. As if in response to her thoughts, Zelia stood up and introduced herself. “I’m a victim legal support worker, I work for family services. I’m accompanying Sarah today.”

“Can Zelia to come with me?” asked Sarah. She wasn’t sure where she’d found the voice to speak to the officer. She’d never spoken with a police officer before. She had to do this. She had to do this for her little brother’s sake, if not her own.

The officer looked them both over and questioned Sarah. Do you know this woman?

Sarah hesitated, “well, we just met, but she works for Family Services and they said she could come with me to help me make my statement.” 

“She’s not a family member, or a friend?” he asked, looking at both of their faces for a reaction, as if they might be lying.

“No”, said Sarah, wondering why it mattered. Well, now that she thought of it, a family member she could see, they might try to shape her story. Then she got it. “This person has no personal connection to me or what happened to me. ” she said. It did kind of make sense. She wouldn’t have wanted her mother sitting in on this interview.

“It’s my job to be do legal accompaniment” confirmed Zelia.

The RCMP officer looked at Sarah and Zelia, considering, and then motioned them both ahead of him, through a door and down another hall into a small beige interview room.

The officer introduced himself and gave her his card. He got out a note pad, and prepared a tape recorder on the table. Sarah got out her notes.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened in your own words” he said.

Sarah looked at this man, and then at Zelia, who smiled. “you can do this” her eyes said.

“I’m from Still Lake. Beginning when I was about five, my father raped me.” she started.

“When you say ‘raped’ what do you mean?”

Sarah thought, “if this guy was a woman he’d know exactly what I meant” but said, for clarity”He vaginally raped me”

“Do you mean he had intercourse with you?”

Sarah didn’t like that term for it, there is no ‘with’ in rape, and the way it was phrased implied she’d had consensual sex, but technically, that was the term for what he’d done ‘with’ her. “Yes.”

The officer motioned for her to continue.

“It happened from the time I was about 5 till I was 15, when he stopped. When I was twelve he… switched to oral and anal rape. I think he thought I might get pregnant once I started having my period.” The officer asked some questions to clarify what she meant by oral and anal rape, as if it needed to be clarified. Zelia didn’t look surprised at the questions though, so she went on, patiently, as emotionlessly as possible explaining what he wanted to know.

The police officer asked how many times it had happened. Sarah honestly didn’t know. More than once? he asked. Yes. she said, definitely more than once. No, I don’t know how many times. How did she know it had happened more than once?   I remember at least three different locations where things happened, so it must have happened several times. In my memories I’m different ages. It all runs together.

When did it stop? he asked. I don’t remember exactly, but I know definitely by the time I was fifteen.

“It slowed down when I started having my period. I think he was worried I’d get pregnant. Then later, he was worried I’d tell, so he stopped.”

He had stood in front of her in the hallway, tall, trying to look gentle, concerned, like the nice daddy he pretended to be in front of others, and sometimes for her. She had stopped pretending she believed in his act, and it worried him. Lately she’d been arguing with him in the evenings before he passed out in his chair. She’d found out he wasn’t supposed to be doing what he was doing and she had stopped being a good quiet little girl. Away from everyone else, he’d cornered her there with his back to the fabric wall hanging of trees, hanging at the end of the hall. She kept her eyes on the hanging. He said brightly “you know I’d never hurt you”, like this was the truth she was supposed to believe, or more likely tell others she believed. Sarah looked at him and said nothing, but her look did not comply or submit.  That was the day she was sure it had stopped. He never abused her after that day. Her mother and brothers did not stand up to him. He’d tortured and terrorized her almost her entire life, she had refused to comply, and it had ended.

“Why are you reporting this now?” asked the officer.

“I am not living with my parents any more, and my dad doesn’t know where I am. My little brother is at home and I want to protect him. I think he might have moved on to him.”

“Why do you think that?” asked the officer.

Sarah told him of her suspicions, that her dad had taken too much interest in her brother being naked in the shower, had made a sexual comment to her once about her brother. Her father said creepy things, like they were perfectly normal, but this made her wonder if he was eying her brother sexually.  Mike’s bedroom was next door to the one Sarah had been abused in, even closer to the master bedroom than her own had been. Access would not be hard.

The officer was not impressed. Fathers abusing daughters, he could apparently believe, but teenage sons were a bit beyond his credibility. He asked how old her brother was, and evidently thought he was too old to be abused. He thought that her father would not abuse boys and that a fifteen year old could defend himself. Sarah knew that her dad controlled her home so absolutely, he could do whatever he wanted, to his wife who should have been old enough to defend herself too, and even to his son, but how could she convince the officer of that?

“Do you think he would rape his own daughter and stop at boys?” Sarah thought to herself, but didn’t say it. She hoped her brother had been spared. Truly hoped it. Instead she said “He would do anything.”

The officer asked her a few more questions, gave her an incident number and told her that a typed transcript of her statement would be sent to her. At Zelia’s prompting, he asked whether Sarah felt afraid about her father’s response, and she said, he doesn’t know where I live, I think. The officer aske d if her mom and dad might try to get her to retract her statement, and Sarah allowed that they might try. She was more afraid her father would come to town in person. That would be very bad. He said he’d add a no-contact order to the file, so her father couldn’t contact her. Sarah didn’t know that was even possible, but was so relieved she could barely speak. S nodded, relieved.

The officer seemed to be done with her at that point, and showed them back to the waiting area. Sarah couldn’t have spoken more, she was so relieved to be done, if frustrated that she hadn’t been able to convince them to protect her brother. She was so glad to be out of the small room with the big man, and left. Zelia told her she’d done a good job.  She drove her home and said goodbye. Sarah never saw her again.

The police sent the transcript, as promised. Sarah waited. Almost seven years later, apparently under political pressure to clean up the backlog of sexual assault cases, they questioned her mother, father, older brother and she didn’t know who else. The no-contact order was apparently a fiction until then, if they presented it at all. She found out later that her mother refused to speak to the police. Until charges were laid they couldn’t force her to do so. Her father had been taken down to the station in a police car by two police officers, who had read him her statement and questioned him. Sarah had decided to let that be her justice, that he’d been treated like the criminal he was. He’d immediately lawyered up, and refused to talk to them iether. Her mother told her later that he was terrified afterward for years that they would come back for him.

When, twenty years later, her mother informed her that her father had a recurrence of the cancer he’d almost died of two years before, Sarah realized that till then she had always been waiting, hungering for his death. She wanted the satisfaction of knowing that it was over, that he would never hurt anyone again, and that it was no longer her responsibilyt to stop him. She had been dreading the tidal wave of emotion and possibly, horribly new memories her mind would release once assured of her safetly from him by his death. However, despite these fears she could feel his hold of fear on her, like a psychic choke chain, weaken to a thin strand, near breaking.

Car Crash – or what PTSD is like – novel

Photocredit: Kel Patolog via Flickr

[Note: Since I first wrote this, this piece has gotten a lot of attention for being a really good way to explain to people in your life what it’s like to have PTSD and Complex PTSD in particular and why there aren’t any quick fixes. I hope it’s helpful for you and your loved ones.]

I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month ( and the following excerpt is what I wrote today on it.

The novel this year is about sociopaths, a people making sense of a past including child abuse, disconnection with nature and people trying to do the right thing in the face of it. I don’t know exactly what shape the pieces will take yet. I didn’t know last year at this stage iether really, but I suspect it will be more complicated this year. Last year was a simple time-travelling love story.

This is an installment of my novel, in progress. More pieces here.


It’s like this.

Imagine you are a mother driving home from a family function with your nine year old daughter in the passenger seat. You have had one or two drinks but it was awhile ago and you decided you were okay to drive.

The night is rainy and you get into a serious car accident. You are thrown forward in your seat and injure your body where the steering wheel strikes you. Your daughter is killed. You are helpless, pinned inside the car, unable to reach her as she dies before your eyes, convulsing, screaming, blood coming from eyes and ears.

The experience is so overwhelming, emotionally that your brain can’t process it, can’t store it in the usual way. The information flows in to fast and too intensely to be properly filed in one place, all together. The sensation of the steering wheel and the pain in your abdomen gets put in one place, completely separated from the visual memory of your daughters face as she struggled and died. That memory is separate as well from the contempt in the voice of the rescue worker who asked if you had been drinking. That memory is separate from the lights of the semi high beams in your eyes which blinded you for a moment, contributing to the accident. The pain from your chest. The emotional pain of watching your daughter die. Your daughter’s last words.

Those snippets of memory, and hundreds of others from that night are stored in little boxes in your mind, with no connection to the other pieces. They don’t form a whole memory at all, and you have no ability to put them in the correct order or link them to one another. It is too painful and overwhelming when you try, so you don’t.

You receive medical attention but everyone drifts away from you after that and you move to a new place where no-one knows. You vaguely remember that your daughter died in a car accident, but don’t remember details. People think you are lucky not to remember any of it, and are relieved you have nothing to tell them. Knowing it happened at all is bad enough for them, and the uncomfortable look on their faces soon teaches you to not even go that far with them. You can’t tell anyone about what you do remember, because it feels like it was your fault. After awhile you seem to forget it happened at all.

Then one day you are riding the bus and someone pushes you hard, in your abdomen. Suddenly the memory fragment of the crushing sensation in your chest is triggered, which in turn has a connection to the box holding the emotional pain that you don’t know is from watching your daughter die. They both ‘fire’ in your mind simultaneously.

You feel the pain in your chest as if it was happening now, along with a loss so great and horrifying that you panic. There is no other information to explain what this is about. You freeze, ashamed, and people are well meaning but think you are crazy, or think you need a doctor. You think you are crazy too.

Later on, this type of thing happens again and again. Lights in your eyes trigger some part of the memory, or a particular phrase, or seeing a simulated car crash on tv, or seeing someone who looks like your daughter did, seeing a rescue worker in uniform, or being around your family members at the holidays, who carefully do not talk about what happened.

You feel anxious and fearful a lot of the time, but couldn’t say exactly why.

If you are lucky, you will be able to stand the sensation during the gift of memory that is a flashback long enough to put the pieces together a little and don’t try to numb it very often with drugs, or alcohol, food or work. You do remember that your daughter died, and you think that maybe this has something to do with it.

You find a therapist and tell her what you remember consciously, which isn’t much. Your daughter died. You were driving. The rest is a blank. One day you have a session after a particularly intense flashback. While telling her about it, in the safety of a non-judgmental relationship, you have another flashback that fits with the first and make the connection with what you already know. You realize that the lights in your eyes you’ve been having nightmares about are the headlights of the truck you saw that night. The next time you have a nightmare about them, you tell yourself this and it calms you down. The better you get at doing this, the less often you have these nightmares, and you gradually find you can look at headlights at night without feeling much panic. Eventually they are sometimes just headlights, unless you are having a particularly stirred up day.

One day, with a lot of support from your therapist, you get the courage to ask after the accident reports. You travel back to the town you lived, practicing deep breathing to keep from having panic attacks when you see familiar landmarks. The day you go to the station and get access to the report, you are terrified. Some of what is written is not exactly as you remember it, it is told from a different perspective. It reads like it happened to another person. When you read in the police station archives, that it said you’d indicated you’d had a drink at the party prior to driving, you become unable to read further and freeze. You run into the bathroom, find a stall and break into deep sobs in the police office. You hope no-one comes in and hears you, or worse, asks what is wrong.

However, the report helps because it gives you a framework to attach the snippets of sensation and memory that intrude into your consciousness or have been invited during therapy sessions. You find that they all fit at some place in the story, and you begin to have compassion for the woman who experienced this tragedy, that woman who doesn’t quite feel like yourself.

Now imagine that the situation is not a car accident, witnessed and documented by police, so you can check the validity of your memory fragments. Imagine that an incident equally horrifying or worse was perpetrated on you by a loved and trusted person while you were a child under their control. Imagine that there was no medical attention, even though you were seriously injured, and no one to help or tell. Imagine that it wasn’t a single traumatic incident’s worth of sensation fragments to piece together, but fifty, spread out over a decade or more. Imagine that as a result of the first couple of incidents, you had walked around in a self-protective haze for most of your childhood. Imagine that as a result, your brain didn’t bother to store the kind of information that provides context and meaning for these later traumas, but only the sensations of pain or horror. You are missing a large number of key pieces of several of the memories, meaning that without outside validation, you will likely never be able to explain or integrate them fully for yourself, make them whole and stop them from intruding into your life.

Imagine that your family members refuse to talk to you about what they remember of what happened, because it is too painful for them, or because they don’t want you to remember what happened, they blame you or they don’t want you to remember their part in condoning it. Imagine that they tell you that you are lying, making it all up, that you are crazy, either directly or indirectly. Or imagine that instead they say they believe you that this person hurt you, but don’t think it was a big deal and still spend christmas every year with the family member who hurt you. They expect you to do the same.

If you are lucky, you will divorce your family, get good therapy, and find some friends with similar experiences who understand and normalize what happened. If you are lucky you will have a spouse who becomes trained to hold you and calm you at night when you have nightmares, or if you have flashbacks during lovemaking, does not take it personally and learns not to touch you in ways that trigger the minefield of memory fragments. With luck and time, you connect the puzzle pieces you can, and develop what explanation you can for those you cannot connect. You learn, in the midst of the panic, to tell yourself, “this is abuse stuff” and that you are safe now, and most of the time that helps enough. If you are lucky and face it as square on, for as long as you can, then the memory fragments intrude less and less, and eventually they stop. You make peace with the mysteries you can’t solve, and protect yourself from further harm effectively.

You don’t tell most people about all this, as it upsets them and often they say stupid things that make it worse. They ask why you aren’t over it by now. They say “parents do the best they can with what they know at a time” or “forgiveness will set you free”. Their own experiences with minor wounds and misdeeds tell them that these are the truth, so they think it applies to you.

Friends you trust enough to tell how it really is are uncomfortable with the anger you have worked hard to feel and express, because turning it inside poisons you. They tell you that forgiving the sociopath who hurt you solely for his or her own enjoyment will magically make all the aftereffects disappear, forcing you to make the decision to tell them what naïve fools they are or just change the subject. Sometimes you want to ask them, “will forgiving the truck that hit you make the broken bones go away?”

If you are lucky, you will have some people in your life who never say these things, or you will soon have no friends at all. You learn not to tell most people things they can’t understand, which means that sometimes your behaviour is unexplainable.

Without being able to share the facts, it becomes impossible to explain in a compelling enough way to strangers, that unless they want to hold your hand, remind you to breathe, listen to you tell them the disjointed snippets of what you remember about being trapped and tortured in a small box, and comfort you afterward, all of which would actually healing, you simply cannot ride in an elevator today.

Some days you can do it with no more than some attention to deep relaxing breathing, and focusing on the elevator musak and the knowledge that you are safe and an adult. Doing this often enough will make things permanently better, but takes a lot of internal fortitude each time. However, you know from experience that if you do succumb to pressure and ride in the damn elevator (or whatever) when you’re not ready, you will pay by going numb for days, and spend days on high emotional alert and nights of nightmares. Because  they don’t or won’t understand why you have needs they don’t, people find you rigid and odd. They have no idea how courageous you are.