Friday, August 11, 2023

Once Broken


I was small-town raised, sheltered from the ways of the world. I had barely turned 18 when I left home to marry a batterer, not knowing in the beginning that he was such a man. He slowly and methodically stripped me of dignity and eventually separated me from our children After seven years of marriage, traumatized and two months pregnant with my third child I fled my abuser and sought sanctuary. 

And so it was that on one April evening in 1974, I stood naked in “front of God and everybody” and was baptized into a religious cult which I will refer to as the Family. I left my past behind, gave up my possessions, and turned my back on my flesh and blood.   In this vulnerable state, I dedicated myself to this group of people, their ideals, and the charismatic man that led them.  He spoke like he knew the answers to life and while he exuded the feeling that while in his presence I was loved and beautiful, his confidence was overwhelming and I felt diminished. I was never fully comfortable around him for any length of time.

In the peaceful setting of fragrant flower gardens, beautiful music, and people dressed in flowing robes and lovely dresses; one would think I had arrived in heaven but I was numb inside, looking out from inside a bubble, separate from everything around me.  My tears threaten to spill out but I did l not let them escape.  I hid behind a smile and artificial pleasantries while beneath the surface my emotions roiled. Ripped apart I shielded my heart to suppress the pain because I could not face it. Not yet. This group of people that I was among was so peaceful and welcoming and yet not one person had an inkling of who I really was. We in the family were encouraged to live in the present and not talk about the past, let alone bring up any unpleasantness that may have occurred in daily life. This would be construed as negativity. 

Over the years the idealism I had dedicated my life to had slowly eroded and a gulf had developed between the lifestyle of the regular members of the group and the leader himself.  The importance of his authority took priority over the well-being of the people. 

 Still, I stayed. Some years were relatively happy but when I think back the bad memories outweigh the good.  I stayed because I didn’t want to be alone and it was too daunting to be “out in the world”.  I had no skills and had not been in the job market for years. It was easier to stay on the land, “with the program”, and be directed and told how to think. Also, my years as a battered woman before the family had traumatized me to the point of dysfunction and co-dependency. I was unable to sustain healthy relationships.

The group had settled on a beautiful piece of land nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. We had so much potential to develop a sustainable community. What was seen from the outside was a contrast from the day-to-day reality of life in the family. If you were a guest visiting for the first time you would see carefully manicured lawns and gardens with people working together, children and adults alike, and if the timing was right you would be hosted by the head of the family and treated to a fine meal and good wine.  He might take you on a special tour of his house; show you his leather couches, and flat-screen television on the first story before taking you upstairs where there is a grand piano and artwork on the walls.

What would not be part of the tour was a walk of the trail uphill into the forest. If you went on your own you would pass a couple of small wooden houses nestled in among the trees. Further along, you would pass an outhouse along the trail. At the top of the hill, you would see a yurt built on top of a wooden structure. How quaint, you might think as you got closer, as this dwelling looks so peaceful and simple but you would notice mold growing on the walls of the yurt and sagging rough wood steps that led from the porch to the upstairs sleeping and bathing quarters.  As you went in the door you would see the kitchen and living area, lit by kerosene lamps, for there is no electricity. There are no kitchen cupboards, just shelves with curtains thumb-tacked on to keep out the dust but not the mice. The furniture, what there is of it, is ramshackle, mismatched, and obviously old.  The wood stove seems to be heating well, although it, too, is showing signs of age. This was where I lived. The housing issue, for me, was frustrating in a deep way because I felt helpless to change it. The lack of possessions is not what bothered me, but the lack of power in my life.

Something needed to change. I was unhappy. My relationships were failing and my self-esteem was frail. I didn’t know who I was. I started to realize that I had subjected myself to a similar reality of my first marriage. There was no violence here but the pervading patriarchy was stifling.  There was no room in the family for personal development. Life was dedicated to the service of the whole; emotionally, spiritually, and financially.  I needed personal fulfillment. I needed to face and heal the demons of the past in my life before I came to the family. There was no hiding.

I took refuge in writing and in those stolen moments I began a life-changing journey by taking a correspondence course in composition from a university that opened a new world of self-discovery and new possibilities.  In the second year of my course, I chose the Sacred Feminine as my thesis.  Through the process of research realized I could no longer support a patriarchal system. I moved away and started a new life with much healing to be done. Shortly after the family went bankrupt, lost the land, and disbanded, except for a handful of people. The gratifying part is that in spite of the challenges and difficult choices and circumstances my children have undergone each one is a strong, loving, and caring person. I ask for no more than that.

I am in my 7th decade of life, and I hope that in time I will make peace with the feelings from the past that still rise to the surface unbidden. It is not that I dwell on the past; it is that the wounds are profound. Once I was broken there was no putting me back it back together in the same way. 

To be continued

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