Not Telling?

From Divide by Zero:

“Why did you do that?” Sharon asked. Sylvia just shrugged as they walked the tree-lined path in silence. “You always do it, don’t you?”

“Not always,” Sylvia mumbled.

“Oh come on!” Sharon stopped short. “Come on. Tell me one time you didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

They walked on. Dried leaves from long-gone fall crunched underfoot. The air smelled heavy and sickly sweet, pine needles dripping on the outer branches of trees. Light shone brighter as they came to the end of the path. Running water, shouts of children playing and adults calling names drifted nearby. Sunlight slanted through bark dust floating on air.

“Let’s stop here,” said Sharon when they came to a bench, so they sat. Sylvia gazed down at her hands, firmly, primly clasped over her knees, skirt pulled down, legs together. Beside her, Sharon threw herself into a sprawl, arms and legs akimbo on wooden slats. Then she stood again, stepping forward
and back.

“No,” Sharon said as Sylvia started to move. “No. You stay there. Let’s talk.” She faced her friend. “You listen, Sylvia. You just sit there and listen to me for a change.” She turned back to the tree-hidden sky, gathering thoughts from the air. “Okay. So we’re at the party and it’s snowing outside.” Arms thrown out dramatically. “Everyone’s happy. Right? Great music. Great food. Nothing bad going on. Nothing our mothers wouldn’t approve of, right?”

Sylvia nodded and groaned.

“And then my brother, my dear sweet Simon that you’ve been going all gooey-eyed over forever, my brother that’s only there ’cause I told him I wanted him to meet you—’cause you told me you wanted to meet him… Yeah?”

Sylvia nodded again.

“My brother asks you to dance, and you stand there like a brick. Then he tells you you’re pretty—I know, I was listening—he tells you you’re pretty and you run away like he’s threatened to murder you or something.”

Sylvia’s head angled down. Tears splashed on the backs of hands tightly clasped in her lap.

“Why?” Sharon asked, reaching to comfort her friend. “Why, Sylvia?”

But Sylvia didn’t answer. Her sobs were quiet, though they drowned out the birds and the water, children and parents too. The rest of the park belonged to a different world as Sylvia wept in her secret circle of shame.

“Why, Sylvia?”

A mother walked by, holding a small girl by the hand. “Amelia, this way.” The child hummed tunelessly, trailing a red-dressed doll and stuffed rabbit behind her.


A bunch of schoolchildren, youngsters with bright happy shouts and flashing feet, burst from sunlight into the trees. They raced past the bench with parents following. Sounds of tears and laughter stayed behind, waiting for seasons and time.

“Will you tell me sometime, Sylvia?”

“Maybe. But I don’t think we should stay in the woods on our own. We should warn those kids.”

But how do we warn our children, and how can they know when their safe world’s suddenly strange?

Divide by Zero
Divide By Zero

What did he say?

From Infinite Sum:

I went out for coffee with Lydia then thought, how stupid—I couldn’t say anything in a store. We carried our drinks down to the park where I thought, how stupid—how could I talk with the forest still watching. Then we wandered the quiet streets back to Lydia’s house. I imagined I’d wait until we were inside, but instead my words just tumbled out.

“In the park. When I was a kid. This guy kept touching me.”

“Why didn’t you just say no,” said my sister, her voice as brittle as saccharine poured into coffee. “It’s what I did.” And I wondered what she meant…

I told my brother and he hugged me and said, “Poor you. Did you know our Lydia got abused too?” So I wondered if you can measure depth with the number of times it occurs, and define who’s more hurt…

Mom didn’t want to believe me at first. I sat beside her on the sofa and we stared at the TV’s empty eye. She said she would have known. She would have noticed it. She said I couldn’t have got home late from school so many times. She said someone would have told her. My school work would have suffered and the teachers would have said. I was never any good with secrets so it couldn’t be true.

Mom said they talk about recovered memories and so many times they’re false. Auto-suggestion, she said, and it’s all the psychiatrist’s fault. So what had my therapist said to me?

I said I never forgot, so I didn’t need to remember, and it had to be true.

She said I’d forgotten his face.

I said I never knew it…

Daddy cried…

I could tell when Lydia told Troy because of the way he looked at me, as if he was trying to imagine [those] hands on me, or else his own. I was glad I didn’t live in Paradise now. I was glad to get in my car and drive away, back to Donald and the children, back to the safety and secrecy of my home…

The therapist asks me, “What about when you told Donald? What did he say?”

Donald said men have needs and he was glad our children were all boys.

“What did he mean?”

I didn’t ask. I think he meant he loved me and it wasn’t my fault.

If you’ve ever wondered why we don’t tell, ask yourself how you would respond when someone you love tells you.


Infinite Sum by Sheila Deeth: published by Ink-Filled Stories

Does everybody do “it”?

“But everybody does it,” someone said. “There’d be no one left in government or politics if they kicked them out for that.” For being a drunken teen, for not listening when a woman said no, for abusing physical power… the reward is more power?

I believed them, because the man who hurt me was good, wise, and influential… one of that “everybody” perhaps. But I’ve struggled all my adult life to put any trust in good men, because of him. And now, if “everybody does it,” that proves me right, doesn’t it? Men can’t be trusted, ever… except I’m wrong. Not everybody does it, and believing they do is an insult to half the human race.

Still, it’s “just a youthful mistake” they said. And how many wives would find their husband’s names on “offenders” lists if they’d been caught, sneaking into the bedroom at night? Except abuse of power and youthful indiscretion aren’t the same thing at all. And the answer, in any case, is only a few. To imagine most men sneaked into their girlfriend’s bedroom is an insult again to half the human race. To imagine that sneaking into a bedroom, both parties filled with romance that leads to marriage, might be the same thing as abuse is an insult to the other half.

Nobody should do “it”—and let’s call it by its name: Nobody should abuse a women, or a girl, or a teen (or a boy, an old man, a youth…). Not everybody does “it,” and “it” is never okay.

But how much should a past offense influence an adult man’s future? As much as it influenced the future of the woman he hurt, perhaps? Should it dictate what job he can take? It dictates what job she can cope with. Should it keep him from public office or the public eye? If he wants to avoid wounding her over and again every time she hears his name, of course it should! And if he doesn’t want to avoid wounding her, over and again, perhaps there’s something wrong with him which should, in itself, keep him from public trust or public office.

Should it destroy his livelihood? It might dictate he change his livelihood. It might have changed hers.

Should it cause his name to be dragged through the dirt? Not if he confesses, no. Not if he admits, “I was an idiot,” and hopefully can honestly add, “I’m not that person now.” Not if he says he’s sorry and means it. Not if he accepts that it might cost his job, and allows himself to be as helpless fighting back as his victim once was. Not if he admits that not everyone does it, and nobody should do it. Not if he does all he can to avoid dragging her name through the dirt.

No, not everybody does “it.” But we all have a responsibility to change a culture that somehow imagines they do. There are lots of good men and good women out there, lots of reformed men and women too, and lots who still need to admit that what they thought okay was seriously wrong. “It” would, in fact, still be wrong, even if everybody did “it,” and ignorance would be no defense.

Why remember now?

The voice on the radio told me how memory works; how traumatic memories get “coded” into the brain, details locked into a fabric that won’t be torn or worn down, even while other recollections fade—as the speaker revealed, which antagonist pushed her into the room might be vague; who lay on top of her is not.

My “code” is mathematical, tied to science and astronomy. I looked into the light and shade of my own memories then, and imagined my trauma like a black hole in the fabric of my universe. Draw too close and I’ll be drawn in. There’s no element of choosing. I can’t decide to forget, or even when to look or turn away. In traveling from this place to that, my path might cross the black hole’s invisible influence. Suddenly I’m spiraling to a place I don’t want to go. Listening to the radio, I spiraled and clung tight to stay controlled.

The voice on the radio spoke out to the world, or at least to this corner, this country of the world. They asked her, “Why now?” “Why remember?” “Why so sure?” And I, who am supposed to have moved on, forgiven, recovered… I almost asked the same just days before. Was that because I didn’t want to go near the black hole in my own memories?

Of course she remembers now, and always. Of course she doesn’t want to speak now, or ever. And of course she does speak, because now the black hole’s right in front of her and there’s no escaping it, and because she’s brave enough to stand up for the rest of us, and because she doesn’t want to fall back into her past every time his name is mentioned on the radio. So I’m sorry I didn’t immediately jump to support her. I’m sorry I imagined that something so long ago perhaps shouldn’t color a man’s future. I realize it colors hers, as such things do mine; so of course it ought to add a shadow to his. I’m sorry I hid behind my neighbors’ platitudes.

My black hole still waits. The memory doesn’t go away just because I’ve “dealt” with it. And traveling from this place to that might still take me dangerously close to its path, especially as I listen to the radio. Sometimes I’ll feel like I’m being used, an object rather than a person, my opinions and my feelings irrelevant. I want to run, lash out, scream and shout. Sometimes I’ll feel those things wrongly, inappropriately. And sometimes I’ll tell myself that’s what’s going on, before I respond inappropriately. Sometimes I won’t. The black hole doesn’t have power because I give it power; it has power because of the way my memories were made, coded into my brain, wired, in-erasable.

I forgave and moved on, but the story’s hardwired into me; some details horribly clear; some distant and vague. I forgave and moved on, but I still steer a cautious path around the black hole in my mind. I pray that path might be clearer now, for listeners to the radio, than it would have been had that brave lady stayed silent. And I thank her for speaking for all of us.

Do you believe a woman wouldn’t lie?

A woman wouldn’t lie, I read recently. The writer amended this, when challenged, to A woman wouldn’t lie about something like this, not when she knows all the pain she’s letting herself in for. The writer concluded that in something like this a woman should always be believed.

It got me wondering, would I rather be believed because I’m a woman, or because what I’ve said is true? Disturbingly, the thought that someone might believe me just because I’m a woman makes me feel small and soiled, a speaker of words not really worth considering.

Even more disturbingly, I know such blind belief in a woman’s words would be misplaced. A woman would lie, just as a man would, if she felt the gain worth the cost. My circle of male acquaintances isn’t wide, but even I know two men—one a close family friend, and one a friend of a relative—who innocently suffered through the courts at the hands of lying women. For both of them, there were neighbors and supposed friends who shunned them, declaring No smoke without a fire and A woman or in one case A teenaged kid wouldn’t lie. Both cases were convincingly proven false, though one man endured jail time before his conviction was overturned. And both men continued to suffer, having lost their jobs, their friends, their security… in one case even his physical health as well.

A woman might lie. So might a man. And truth can be hard to find. Women and men have been abused, as children, teens and adults. Women and men have been lied to and lied about. Women and men deserve an equal say, as do accuser and accused. And perhaps the lesson we should learn is to listen, check the facts, and never assume guilty till the case is solved. No, the woman’s not automatically guilty of overpowering the man with her foolish temptations. And no, the man’s not automatically guilty of overpowering the woman with his strength. The child’s not automatically guilty of lying about the priest, nor the priest of abusing the child. But the case should be investigated, truth be tested, and justice be served as best it humanly can.

Innocent until proven guilty matters, whether layman, priest or politician, whether accuser or accused. Listening matters. Not following after blind falsehoods and baseless assumptions matters. Not choosing our truths based on which media report best grabs our attention, which party we prefer, or which church we attend. Everyone lies, sometimes. So please don’t cheapen our cry to be heard by saying A woman wouldn’t lie. Please tell us we’re worth the effort it might take to find the truth.

Forgive and Remember?

Someone commented on one of my posts that I shouldn’t confuse forgiving and forgetting. How very true, but how often we’re told in church and school to “forgive and forget,” as if not forgetting were somehow tantamount to refusing to forgive. If true forgiveness is divine, what on earth does that make forgetting?

We do indeed ask God not to “remember” our sins, and we have done, ever since the days of the Psalms. How nicely the nuns in school used to explain it though, not as a cruel demand on us to do likewise, but as mercy from God. They said we should imagine a timeline of our lives, with every sin, every error, every misunderstanding marked out clearly in black. What a mess, they told us, as we all knew it must be. But then they said we should see that line through God’s eyes, with every sin “crossed” out in the name of Christ; God looking at our messy pasts in delight and declaring “What a wonderful, most perfectly obedient son!”

Maybe that’s divine “forgetting.” Replacing the past—which only God can do (being, as the nuns also explained so well—for a mathematically and scientifically inclined little nine-year-old girl—“outside all time and space”).

God will indeed “remember their sins no more,” as the Bible promises. But today, in time and space, in this time and this place, maybe it behooves us sometimes to forgive and remember; to protect ourselves (those selves for whom Christ died); to protect the sinner from temptation to reoffend; to protect our neighbors… and even to remember; this is how I allowed myself to be hurt; with His help, I’ll not do it again.

The Bible doesn’t tell us to forgive and forget; only that God will forgive, cover our transgressions, cast our crimes from us as far as the east is from the west… and that we, being forgiven, should strive to “forgive.” Which we do, not always succeeding. But whatever would make us imagine we might also cast another’s crimes so impossibly far?

I will try, when I can, to forgive and not hold a grudge. I will ask, when I can’t, that God forgive others for me, and heal my grudge. And I’ll remember to protect myself. I’ll remember, in order to protect myself. Because God loves me, and God considers I’m worth it—he paid the ultimate price for me, so that one day, outside of time and space, neither my sins nor any committed against me will be worth remembering.

What if you can’t forgive?

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Sometimes it’s debts; sometimes it’s trespasses; but the meaning’s the same, and Christians pray these words, in one form or another, every day when they say the Lord’s Prayer.

Sometimes it’s comfort; sometimes it’s condemnation. And sometimes we turn our faces to heaven and ask: What if we can’t forgive? What if the debtor’s dead, or the sinner won’t apologize? What if the crime was committed against others, and I’m just so angry, and anyway, it isn’t my place to forgive? What if…?

Did Jesus really mean that God would forgive my abuser and not forgive me, making my unforgiveness a greater crime than what was done to me?

The secular world told me I should stop letting memories have power over me. It certainly made sense of what I felt. Every time I sensed even the faintest hint that someone was “using” me my anger would rise—misdirected anger; a fury still raging inside. I had no power over it.

So I tried to “understand”—my secular solution—and called it forgiveness in my mind. I knew (far more than I should) of my abuser’s past and how he’d been hurt. I could see the reason for his actions, though I didn’t condone them. I could stop myself from feeling angry at every thought of him… but the anger still waited for any half-hearted excuse to explode out of me. The memory still had secular power. The “sin” of unforgiveness still lurked. In a spiritual sense, I was unforgiven.

In church, they offer the perfect example and tell us to follow it. Jesus forgave from the cross, they say, so why can’t—or why won’t—we. (Of course, Jesus healed, but we don’t pretend we can heal. He raised the dead…. But that’s not the point.)

The I realized—what Jesus said on the cross, what the Bible tells me he said, wasn’t “I forgive,” but “Father forgive,” instead. Jesus, my Savior—his human part at least—did not forgive, for all that he “understood” and could generously claim “they know not what they do.” His understanding of them wasn’t forgiveness, any more than my understanding of my abuser. So he asked his Father to do it for him.

I can cope with that. I can copy that, too, so I did. “Father, forgive my abuser.”

“Father, forgive…”

Forgive our society that allows such wrongs. Forgive our churches that closed their eyes. Forgive our families that couldn’t understand. Forgive our neighbors, our friends, the living and the dead. Father forgive, because we can’t, and sometimes, honestly, we confess, we’re not even sure  we really want to. But you can do it, Lord.

I don’t understand any Greek or Aramaic. I can’t say how good the Bible’s translation is of any verse. But I’m going to go with “Forgive us our sins, as we ask you to forgive those who sinned against us,” because it fits the message of forgiveness in the Bible, it doesn’t relieve me personal responsibility in desiring forgiveness, and it’s almost the same as the words I was taught. I can cope with being spared from condemnation, and I’ve been given both secular and spiritual relief.

The anger’s still there, sometimes. But it simmers more quietly now, takes longer to stir, and is easier for me to answer with a prayer—with the Lord’s Prayer.

Is that really in the Ten Commandments?


When the pastor preached on the fifth commandment—children obey your parents, teachers, and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all—my first thought, oddly, wasn’t to scream but to question the numbering. It sounds crazy for a mathematician, but I’ve always had trouble with numbers. Symbols (and symbolic numbers) are fine—three for triangles, certainty, the divine and God of course (in so many cultures; the triune God in mine); seven for God’s plan, on the seventh day he rested, seven heavenly bodies, a quarter of the moon’s 28, and seven days in a week; four is the world’s four corners; ten is for men and women, ten-fingered and toed; and four tens delineates a generation, a long time, and an age… So many symbols, so beautifully intertwined. But somehow I’d imagined the ten in the Ten Commandments had to be symbolic too—three for God and seven for his plan.

I looked it up. They really are three and seven in the Catholic tradition I grew up with. They’re numbered the same in Samaritan tradition too, and Lutheran, but not in Jewish or Protestant. Somehow we Catholics concatenated graven images with “no Gods before me:” in number ten (thou shalt not covet), we split apart the coveting of wives and the coveting of goods. How very feminist of us—wives (or spouses, or sexual partners, but that’s a whole ’nuther argument) really aren’t property! (My brother, the Catholic priest, says this may be the only time when I claim my traditions are feminist, but he’s not always right!)

So, Ten Commandments—except that now I’d found 613 more listed in the Old Testament. It’s okay, Pastor; I know I don’t really have to bring you my moldy clothes to inspect when I’ve washed them; I won’t inflict my children’s spots on you either; and I’m happy to eat pork. Those 613 sound more like an application of the ten to a specific situation; they’re probably the reason those Jewish tribes survived all that time in the desert. God loves; God provides.

So, back to Ten Commandments again, and the sermon continues—but now I’ve spotted all those extra commandments Paul gives in his letters. “Wives obey your husbands” even if they abuse you? Paul pairs his injunction with “Husbands, cherish your wives,” so perhaps it’s conditional. “Children obey your parents,” is paired with “Fathers, do not vex your children.” Conditional too?

We’re so good, as church and society, at picking and choosing what to believe. Our favorite disobediences are proudly proclaimed as the reason for society’s ills, even when they’re in the 613 and not the ten. Meanwhile our favorite children are told obey when they haven’t yet learned how to understand right and wrong.

The sermon came to an end. I didn’t scream after all. I did ponder far and wide beyond the Ten Commandments. But I think I learned something. I think I learned there are only ten (by all our different traditions) for a very good reason. Not nine (three plus six), nor eleven (four plus seven), but ten for mankind, ten for God’s perfect provision and wonderful protection—always, yesterday today and tomorrow, only ten.

Let’s pray to understand the ten instead of adding to them. And let’s promise to explain the exceptions too when instructing our children to obey.

Why don’t we tell?

We instruct our children to: “Tell someone.” But why don’t we tell? Why didn’t I? And why do so many stories of abuse come out so much later when all these years have passed?

“Tell someone,” they say. But who would we tell? A trusted adult has just betrayed our trust. Which way shall we turn? Who else can we rely on? So we keep silent, because the trusted adult has told us we must. We convince ourselves this is normal and right, trusting the adult’s word. Even years later, even after telling a therapist—after that unavoidable question that somehow broke the dam built from years of pretending it never happened—even then, it’s hard to follow that injunction to tell someone else. Can you imagine the replies?

“That can’t be true. We’d have known.” But how would you know what I never told?

“He wouldn’t have done that. He couldn’t have.” It’s hard to accept it myself, but he did.

“Are you sure you didn’t imagine it? Are you sure it’s not someone making you believe things, like they say sometimes…” Like those “recovered memories.” But no. I’d always known.

“Why didn’t you just say no?” A pop star had spoken on the radio; she said no. But I’m not her. I was convinced that children have to say yes to adults and always obey. I was a good kid. Sorta.

“Why didn’t you tell him to stop?” Because kids don’t boss adults around.

“You must have known it was wrong.” He said it was right.

“Why did you keep going there?” But I couldn’t stop without reason, and I couldn’t let “our” secret out.

So all I did was stop kissing my parents goodnight; and they thought it was normal, just hormones, just their little girl growing up. Then… years later, three kids later, post-natal depression later… a trusted therapist came up with that one question that opened me up. I told someone, and I finally told someone else. And I answered the questions out loud, instead of just inside my head.

Why does it take so many years for our secrets to be revealed? Because we have to grow up to realize that adults aren’t always right; we have to grow strong to realize we’re not the only one and we’re not always wrong; we have to grow hard to let ourselves hurt others in telling their secrets; and we have to grow tough to be sure it’s worth trying to make someone listen.

We instruct our children to tell someone. But first we must promise to be someone who will listen to them… someone who listens even when our children don’t use words.

Prayer and Prey-ers in Pennsylvania

It comes as a shock, even when you know it’s coming; even when you’ve seen it coming for years, heard about it, talked about it, listened to the news… it still comes as a shock. So now we’re hearing and talking about Catholic priests again, as if it hadn’t happened before, as if it were only Catholics and only in one place and only… And then we ask how didn’t “they” know because it’s so much easier to say than “how didn’t we?”

It’s horrifying, especially if it’s your faith, your church, your background that’s brought into question, because then you, like me, might wonder if we need to share the blame. And then we have to make sure we won’t share it… maybe we’ll leave, never darken the doors of a Catholic church again, never believe in a God who allows such evil, never…

And the evil will continue, not just in Catholic churches, nor even in Christian ones, and not just in secular neighborhoods… because evil doesn’t go away, and all too often we don’t know, we don’t see, and we retreat into blame when we ought to be opening our eyes.

My abuser was a Christian leader, a pillar of church and community, a wonderful man (not Catholic) who led many people to faith, counselled and supported the struggling and the weak, helped his neighbors… and abused me. I’ve been told God wouldn’t use an abuser to bring people to faith, but I’ve been told wrong. I’ve been told abusers are beyond the pale, beyond forgiveness, beyond redemption, but I’ve been told wrong. My abuser was a good man and a sinner. I suffered for his sins. But that doesn’t alter the fact that many others were greatly aided by his kindness. How should I come to terms with that?

And how should Catholics around the world come to terms with news, again, of priests abusing children? These priests are sinners. These children, now grown, are victims. They’re wounded. They’ve lived with that sense of unworthiness, that isolation as if only I could be stupid and helpless and foolish and evil enough to let that happen to me, that sense of unending guilt and shame.

It’s wrong. It’s wrong that I once felt like that. And it’s wrong that we perpetuated a world—yes and a church—where such things couldn’t be spoken about; where the wounded child knew he or she would only be more in the wrong if they dared to speak; where victims knew they wouldn’t be believed; where the accusation, on those rare occasions where something was finally said, was taken as an isolated incident because nobody else had spoken and no one in authority shared the information… because we, as well as “they,” didn’t talk about such things. So we, as well as they, must share the blame.

I would have spoken, as a child, if I’d dared, but it would have destroyed my world if I was believed, and it would have destroyed me if I wasn’t, so I kept silent. When will we learn not to destroy our children’s worlds even more than their abusers do? When will we learn that good and evil reside in each of us and can’t be divided so must be talked about? When will we end the silence, so our children can safely speak, and so those whose sins are found out can be dealt with at once, before the isolated evil becomes a pattern, before the whole world has to end for the child who just wanted one single thing to be changed?

It’s not a Catholic problem. It’s not a problem with priests or with faith or with God. It’s our problem, and one in four people sitting near you as read this has been a victim. It’s time we changed the world.

reading, 'riting, 'rithmeticking

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