Worth Reading

Interview with Author Patricia Eagle

 

WE Magazine for Women interview with Patricia Eagle, author of  “Being Mean”

Tell us about the title of your memoir, “Being Mean.”
Being mean is what my mother called masturbation. (I had no idea of that word until high school.) I am not sure if I learned to “be mean” with my dad or my older sisters first. I remember watching my sisters hump pillows then trying it myself, and I remember rubbing on my dad’s leg to achieve the same sensation. When my mom caught me, she called it being mean. One time I heard her accusing my dad of being mean to me, so the words made sense, I just didn’t understand why she would get so angry about it, and if she didn’t want Dad and I to be mean together, why she didn’t stop him. Later, as an oversexualized person, I believed that feeling good in this way was also “being mean,” something I shamed myself for.
What motivated you to write this book, and where did you find the strength to tell your story?  
Shame became too great a burden. Not speaking up added to that weight. There were too many times when I didn’t speak my truth, whether for lack of courage or thinking my story wasn’t worth being told––and my God, what would people think of me?! Sexual abuse is so prevalent—
so many abused children, so many perpetrators injured in some way that leads them to inflict injury––and all this in our big world of secrets. How can anyone get help when we don’t talk about this? I decided to step into that pool of courageous survivors who have told their stories and add my own. Continuing to stay silent, I believed, would have killed me. Therapy, strong friendships, and solitary retreats in nature have also given me sufficient stability and strength to write my story.
Childhood sexual abuse survivors are at a greater risk of PTSD, depression and other mental health issues. How did your experiences with this affect your life?
Mental health issues still affect my life, but they no longer debilitate me. I believe mental health concerns are as important as any physical health concerns, even though our culture doesn’t always recognize that. I think many are afraid to hear about another’s depression. Someone getting mental health care might be shamed for not “letting things go” or not “putting one foot in front of the other and moving past the tough stuff.” I wanted help in my teens, but talking to anyone felt too risky. I learned that I needed guidance, and, luckily, I was able to find excellent counselors and therapists. Slowly I began to recognize how my sensitivities and depression help me to see the world uniquely and they keep me honing the tools of understanding and compassion.
To cope those painful experiences, you used disassociation, suppressing memories from your childhood. Can you tell us more about that?
Please know that I am not an expert of suppressed memories and can speak only about my own experience. I had forgotten what happened to me, buried memories under dreams and fantasies, numbed myself to flashbacks, and learned to dissociate like a pro with hyper-exercising: if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have stayed alive. Either I would have killed myself or taken a risk that would have done it for me. You forget to survive. You practice keeping memories buried and ignore flashbacks in Herculean efforts to be normal.
What triggered those memories to resurface, and what was that like for you?
During a time of prolonged and perplexing depression and anxiety for me, my sister asked if I remembered any sexual abuse in our family. The day after her question, out of the blue a friend called and shared that her grandfather had sexually abused her. Something snapped in me after that phone call, and my memories began surfacing. I felt sick, crazy, nauseous, and very confused. Although things began to make sense, everything felt wrong. I knew I would never be the same, but I didn’t know if that was good or bad. I felt ashamed and questioned if I wanted to stay alive. I was trying to understand what was happening to me while trying to explain to my husband, friends, my sisters, and later my parents. I upped my therapy appointments and joined sexual abuse survival support groups. Other survival issues were also at hand at that time in my life: my marriage, our individual work worlds, and my stepson coming to live with us. Pure survival became paramount.
You were 4 years old when the abuse started. How can you know what you say happened really happened, especially when you were so young?
One of the most difficult parts of this journey has been when I’ve doubted myself and asked that very question. Before my memories surfaced, I had scenes flash in my head, often triggered by a crisis, a smell, sound, how something felt. I began to think I was crazy. I couldn’t control my feelings well or the images that flashed through my head. Things I remembered from my earliest years are still like a bubble of sensations: a shower curtain being pulled back, a scratchy feeling, a bitter taste, the smell of soap. I can’t explain how things get buried and resurface. But they get buried for good reason. Therapy and lifelong journaling (and a teacher who taught that when we tell the truth, our life is transformed) helped me learn to trust myself and my memories.
Have attitudes about addressing childhood sexual abuse changed? What can we do to erase the stigmas about openly discussing these issues?
I think attitudes are changing, but slowly. There are still stigmas around bringing up sexual abuse. Many times people who finally gather the courage to tell their stories are not believed, and sometimes belittled. We must encourage others to speak up, listen carefully, and not shame anyone for what they have experienced. It is not a child’s fault when this happens, and their ability to learn to trust another or themselves can become irrevocably damaged. And somewhere in this equation of sexual abuse, stigma, and survivors, is the perpetrator. We have to figure out how to identify, talk to and help perpetrators.
How can we protect children from sexual abuse? Are there signs to watch out for?
Stop It Now, an organization that provides help to individuals with questions or concerns about child sexual abuse, teaches how to talk and listen to children and what clues to look for that might point to sexual abuse. For a kid, sensing that something is not right, but not knowing how to know, is a complicated place to be. We must help these kids trust their feelings and, when possible, have the courage to speak up when something feels confusing or wrong to them. Signs to watch out for vary, but staying aware of the comfort of your child around others and listening for anything like your child telling you someone has a touching problem, or likes to take his clothes off. Stay watchful so you notice a person your child is around who doesn’t respect boundaries (tickles too much) or doesn’t accept when a child says no (“Stop!”).
 
How can our culture help perpetrators understand the harm they cause and get the help they need? 
The harm caused is extensive. Children who are sexually abused are at significantly greater risk for later post traumatic stress and other anxiety symptoms, depression, and twice as likely to attempt suicide. Adult women who were sexually abused as children are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression as women who were not sexually abused. Another common consequence of child sexual abuse is over-sexualized behavior which leads to an increased risk for pregnancy at a young age. Will perpetrators care about any of this? My dad expressed regrets to me once; maybe if he had had some help, something would have changed. It’s hard to know how, but it’s absolutely necessary to consider ways to successfully help perpetrators understand the damage they cause and how they can change.
What are your thoughts on using the word “survivor” rather than “victim” to describe those who have experienced abuse?
I think it’s up to each individual to consider what label they prefer. Survivor feels better to me than victim, but neither feels wrong. People’s abuse experiences vary so much, and sometimes it can take a while before someone feels like they will survive. Perhaps it could be more important that we say the word “perpetrator” more often so that those who are sexually abusing children hear us saying what they are and know we are looking for them and want to help them.
What’s the story behind the photo on your book cover? Is that you as a child?
Yes, that is me around age 5. I often wore that expression, per photos and family lore. What you might note in that old photo is, except for my expression, how perfect I look: bow in my curled hair, necklace, pressed dress. My mom would have us all dressed up to “look right,” something we learned early on, even if my scowl revealed a different perspective. Gradually I started smiling more after I realized others would leave me alone and quit taunting to get me to smile. Smiling became an essential cover-up. The scowl was real.
"Being Mean: A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival"
What was your relationship like with your abusers – your mother and father – after you entered adulthood? What was it like to live with and care for them when they were at the ends of their lives?
My parents and I didn’t talk for many years, then agreed to be in touch again though no one recanted accusations or denials. Living with them and being a caretaker at the ends of their lives was much harder than expected. But one reason I had chosen to do this was because I saw it as an opportunity to tunnel through my story and begin writing. I knew moving to Texas and living with them was going to be difficult, but I thought I was pretty empowered after all the work I had done on myself by that point. My husband, Bill, reminded me one night what Ram Dass once said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your parents.” Bill and I discovered really fast how much work we had to do to be the loving, compassionate people we imagined ourselves to be. The complexity of the arrangement was often overwhelming for each of us, but the underlying fear, confusion, and shame that surfaced, demanded attention in a way that later allowed us to see how the entire experience was a gift. And I started writing this book.
Did your parents eventually confess to their abuse?
No, they did not. At one point in my late 20s when I went home to visit my parents, my dad was on the couch crying and said he was sorry for all he had done, that he hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. My memories were still buried at this point, and I had never seen my dad cry. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about and I left. About eight years later after I had voiced my accusations to him, my dad told me that he didn’t know what I was talking about and he recounted an incredibly bucolic life that he said we had had. My mom made it clear I was wrong about any kind of potential abuse when she slapped me at 15 years old, then from 38 years old on held the stance that I was crazy.
Have you forgiven your abusers?
One of the survivors from the documentary “Leaving Neverland” said, “Forgiveness isn’t a line you cross. It’s a road you take.” I understand that. What has been the most useful for me has been developing compassion for my parents and myself. My mom and dad each had their own story and struggles. That’s not to say they weren’t responsible for what happened; they were. I think they were prisoners of their own realities. I gradually came to feel sorry for them––for what they endured for self-preservation––but not forgive them. The biggest hurdle has been forgiving myself and learning self-compassion instead of blaming and shaming myself. It’s a life-long journey.
Should sexual responsibility be equal among men and women?
Yep, just as pay should be equal. It still mystifies me how often only women are held accountable for sexual interactions while men are rarely even asked to speak up. Women don’t get pregnant alone. The responsibility a woman assumes after pregnancy is life-altering, whether through an abortion, adoption, or becoming a mother––possibly a single one. Why does our culture still allow an easier out for men, piling the responsibility for every step of becoming pregnant and being pregnant onto a woman? And the possibility for preventing unintended pregnancy is largely up to a woman, who still has more possible methods of birth control than a man.
How has journaling played an important role in your life, including your journey to healing?
My first writing was at 8 years old, when I kept a diary for my dog, Dabb. I wrote about his friends, his favorite toys, and things we did together. It was an innocent way to enter a diary habit that was acceptable by my mother. Later I had to have a wooden box with a lock on it to protect my diaries from her. By my 20s, I was journaling regularly, as I still do today––almost seven decades of keeping some kind of diary or journal. Journaling has been my go-to place for reflection on the past, present, and future. Believe me, my journals are not literary works, rather a place where I process, pray, plan, and ponder. And, yes, journaling continues to play a critical role in my healing and my writing.
Have dogs always been a significant part of your life? Do you have any pets now?
Dogs have saved my life. My dog, Dabb, was my first best friend, and our hearts supported one another into adolescence and my early teens. I am now owned by the ninth dog in my life. I’m personally a healthier and a better human for having dogs––I laugh and play more, I calm more easily, and I learn more about human behavior by observing them. My dog now, Mercy Mercy Me, comes with me to some of my readings as an emotional therapy dog, and boy does she do her job well.
What’s next for you?
I’m so caught up in this journey it’s tricky to start the next. I want to continue to learn more about what’s being done to help victims, survivors, and perpetrators of sexual abuse. I’m also interested in other women’s stories of resilience, and not just from sexual abuse experiences. I especially want young women to hear and read about resilient women who have gained wisdom for multiple reasons: poverty, illness, or even ranching or teaching. I want to write women’s real stories, about women who bravely wear the lives they’ve lived.
To learn more and get your copy of “Being Mean” visit Amazon.
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