As a kid, I felt intense terror every night when it started getting dark outside. Scared of going to bed, I was jumpy and easily startled watching the sun drop below the horizon. I would sit by the door to the kitchen while my mom made dinner and cry inconsolably. Most of what happened to me at night I would forget in the morning when I woke up. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I felt abandoned and alone.
For a kid who grew up feeling isolated, no one paid attention to me like my maternal grandmother. She baked cookies and knit sweaters for all six of her grandchildren. I thought no one in the world loved me as much as she did. When I was young, she loved to give me baths, teaching me uncomfortable games to play with parts of my body. She would laugh, thinking our secret was so funny. Driven by a need for more, she picked me for sleepovers in her bedroom where the abuse worsened. Being sexually awakened as a defenseless child, I would close my eyes and pretend I was somewhere else. By morning I would forget everything that happened until the sun went down again.
“Getting married was one of my greatest accomplishments!” my friend Julia announced at “girls night in,” as she smugly sipped her drink.
“Marriage is not an accomplishment. Marriage is one step closer to death,” I replied, and my living room erupted with uncomfortable laughter.
“How are things with you and John?” Jackie asked warily.
“I don’t know. I have no idea what is going on,” I said.
I stared at my hands, hoping the answer would leak out of my skin.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, my family swept lots of secrets under the rug. There wasn’t room for them anywhere else.
I grew up in a strict religious family as a fifth-generation Christadelphian. Christadelphians (Greek word meaning “brothers in Christ”) are a small religious denomination with churches scattered over North America, Europe, and Australia. The religion is popular among white, middle-class families. Theologically, they are considered a cult of Christianity, rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. Christadelphian women are expected to remain silent and keep their heads covered during church gatherings. Men provide the leadership, worship is somber, and sermons are Bible-based. Topics such as teen pregnancy, addictions, homosexuality, divorce, and child abuse are off-limits. If you are not following the rules, then you are not a Christadelphian.
My paternal grandfather, the family patriarch, was one of the most well-known, respected Christadelphian teachers. He traveled all over the world and every Christadelphian either knew him or knew of him. Being a Christadelphian was my whole world. I was expected to only spend time with Christadelphians. Everyone else was “in the world” and the possibility of being led astray by those in the world frightens most Christadelphians. The idea of dating or marrying a non-Christadelphian was enough to shut a conversation down. I knew I would not disappoint my family because I took great pride in obeying the Christadelphian rules.
I met John when I was 19. Six years older than me, John was a mechanical engineer, born and raised by two high school math teachers in Northern Indiana. He said he liked me because I amused him. I wanted to marry him because he had a stable job, good looks, and, most importantly, he was a Christadelphian. I wanted him to possess me. Like a warm piece of shepherd’s pie with a meaty center, I wanted him to fill me up and stick to my ribs. In keeping with my family’s tradition, I found a rich husband to rescue me. We were married on July 15, 2001. We bought a cute house with a garden and two-car garage and settled down in Farmington, Mich.
While I was being abused at night, I was shut down during the day. I would lie in my room and stare at the ceiling, checked out, daydreaming, disassociated from reality and relationships. The abuse stopped when I hit puberty. When I was 15, my abuser died of cancer. I did my best to forget anything had ever happened. I came to life and got very involved in my church youth group. I became obsessed with finding a man to marry me, to validate me so I could feel worthy of love. I buried my ugly secret and tried to find somewhere to fit in.
“I hope you get in an accident. I hope you get in an accident because I won’t be there for you. If you call me, I won’t come help you.”
Expletives flew at me from John’s throat. It was 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, and the night sky was pouring rain. I was headed out to visit a friend in the hospital. John was upset because I refused to go to Home Depot at that exact moment. He needed a particular part but didn’t want to leave the house. I walked out the door, wondering if it was normal in a marriage to feel like your soul was being murdered on a daily basis.
John told me what clothes I needed to wear and how my hair should look in order to please him. Soon after we met, it was clear my job was to go to bars with him. Tequila shots upended until the world blurred into one big color. At first, I was so happy someone finally wanted me to be a part of his life, but it didn’t last.
If I refused to go to the bar with him, John got really mad. He would get me in the car, accelerating to racing speeds, weaving in and out of traffic, running red lights, tires squealing through intersections, spinning around street corners. I would close my eyes and try to imagine I was somewhere else. I pictured myself dead so I couldn’t hurt anymore.
When my grandmother died, her youngest son revealed that he had been molested by her. No one believed him because my uncle is schizophrenic and for a long time refused to take his medication, preferring to live on the streets binge drinking his way through homelessness. By the time I told my story years later, my family started to pay attention.
John was gone all the time, two to three weeks every month on business trips to Toronto, Chicago, and Europe. I tried to travel with him, but he wouldn’t have it. There was no use arguing. Before he went on a trip, his mind would leave before his body. Even though I saw John in the house, he wasn’t really there. I did the same thing, too. Before he left, I’d start going out with the girls a lot as a method of coping. That made him really mad.
John got mad a lot. He freaked out if I didn’t throw the eggs away as soon as their expiration date passed. He freaked out if my family sent cash for my birthday, and I didn’t give it to him. He freaked out if I bought more bananas than normal. He freaked out if my laundry touched his laundry. He freaked out if I waved the curling iron around while talking. He was easier to be around when he was drinking, but John was constantly in a state of freaking out. When he was mad at me, he would take my credit cards, cash, checkbook, computer, and both sides of the bed. I was expected to stay inside the house but to find somewhere else to sleep. I was not to leave under any circumstances – unless he wanted me to pick up something for him at Home Depot. I became a prisoner of marriage in middle-class suburbia, afraid to drive my car because John didn’t want me wasting gas.
My hands trembled as I picked up the phone and dialed the incest hotline. I had lost everything: my job, my marriage, my house, my church, my friends. My entire life was hanging on the edge. I had no idea who I was anymore. I grew up thinking what happened to me was normal. To acknowledge the incest raised terrifying questions regarding my own survival. My family was all I had left, and that was where the real problem had been buried for more than 20 years.
John said there was something wrong with him, and it was affecting his whole life.
“Do you want to go to counseling and get help figuring this out?” I asked.
John replied, “Counseling would be helpful, but I don’t want to spend the money. I can’t justify the cost.”
“I will give up my phone, new clothes, and Starbucks for this.”
“No you won’t.”
“Yes I will. I promise. But the minute you stop going to counseling, I get my clothes allowance back.”
I hoped the counselor would help him relax about money. Good thing I raided my sister’s closet right before our conversation.
Our counseling sessions were short-lived. John didn’t have much to say. I saw our relationship slowly dying in a downward spiral once I found my voice. I found my voice when I started saying no. I had tried everything I could think of to make the marriage work, except saying no. I began saying no to going to bars and getting drunk, no to getting in his car, no to wearing what he demanded, and no to staying a prisoner in my own home.
When I called the incest hotline, I was referred to a 12-step support group called Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA). I attended meetings in Los Angeles until I moved to San Diego to live closer to my sister and brother- in-law, taking a job at PLNU. San Diego didn’t have any SIA meetings to go to, so in March I started one in City Heights. SIA provides a place for me to share my struggles with others who understand abuse and its debilitating consequences.
Once I started taking responsibility for my life, I started waking up to my own immature behavior, my lack of strength, low self-esteem, codependent tendencies, emotional repression, careless ways of spending money, and use of alcohol as the means for marriage survival. I became strong enough to express my displeasure at the verbal abuse I experienced at work. Work did not like the new Chloe, and I was fired from my job as executive assistant to the CFO. I began to realize saying no to abuse meant abusive people would not want me around. I began to realize I was married to someone who was never around.
On Jan. 21, 2008, I packed up my car and left Michigan. I drove for five days across America. When I arrived at my parents’ house in Los Angeles, the sky began to cry. I watched salty wet drops pelt my windshield and wondered how long it would take John to show up on my doorstep. I wanted him to promise to change everything. I wanted him to wake up and realize he wanted me around. Of course that never happened. I saw him once, more than a year later, when we stood before the judge and were finally divorced.
The Christadelphian men did not approve of my cross-country move. A good Christadelphian wife does not abandon her husband. The church elders wanted to know why I left. I refused to talk to them and expose my shame. I felt like they were asking me to ditch clothes and live naked. I had lost everything and suddenly memories were coming back to me – dark memories of a bathtub and sleepovers, dark memories that wanted to be seen. The Christadelphians decided to disfellowship me from the religion for getting a divorce. Suddenly, I was thrust into the world where I barely knew anyone and hardly anyone knew me. The people with whom I had spent my life growing up were now on a different side of the glass.
Recovery from these experiences has not been easy. I want to purge the abuse from my body. Blocked feelings and memories will surface, and the pain clenches my heart. My whole body will tense up as if lightning were flowing through my veins. Sometimes it feels like my skin is screaming to be held lovingly. Sometimes it hurts to breathe or eat.
Remembering the abuse through painful feelings and memories that surface has been one of the hardest parts of my journey. I have gotten to know Jesus really well, because when everything fell apart, He was all I had on which to rely. I am beginning to slowly rebuild my life. I strive to build healthier relationships and not confuse abuse with love. Learning to trust others is difficult when so much love and trust was betrayed.
I give voice to that scared, silent little girl by telling my story to others. I write poetry and blog about my experiences; remembering what happened helps me build a better life. My heart skips a beat when others read my poetry and blog posts and comment that they understand, too. As I write this, I feel hope for the future.
Chloe Sparacino began working as the Fermanian School of Business department assistant in April 2009.
By Chloe Sparacino