If something bad happens and only you know it, it could be your fault. Like when Pete slinks home whining and Mama gets down on her knees to look underneath him. Mama’s nylons have a run. Sometimes she uses clear fingernail polish to fix runs, but it doesn’t work for holes. “That’s a big bruise he’s got here,” Mama says to Mafia. Her pretty round bun is falling loose, and strands of hair cover her face. I like to watch Mama in the bathroom when she twists her thick hair up, holding the bobby pins in her mouth so she can use two hands. “Look at this, will you?” Mama says now. “I think this dog got hit.” On TV, the person is guessing the price of onion soup. I don’t like onions, but I watch anyway. Some kids will blurt things out just because they’re scared. But not me. I can keep secrets. Like how on my way home from school I saw Pete run across Albert Street, how the red car screeched, how Pete made that high, sharp sound.
This passage from my memoir, The Part That Burns, took decades to write. I wanted to convey how this little girl—the child I once was—was terrified to tell anyone, especially her parents, about witnessing her beloved dog get hit by a car. But the scene always came out too maudlin, too whiny, until I took an expensive workshop with a well-known literary agent and learned a device called “third-level emotion.” Instead of directly expressing the narrator’s fear, I had to trace that fear to a secondary emotion, which I identified as defiance, and, finally, to a third-level emotion: pride.
Some kids will blurt things out just because they’re scared. But not me. I can keep secrets.
I was three or four when my stepfather, Mafia, first sexually molested me. He continued until he abandoned our family—“like a thief in the night,” my mother always said—when I was ten.
Between 2016 and ’17, The Alliance for Children—an advocacy organization in Texas—conducted 1,181 forensic interviews with children, and more than half had delayed reporting sexual abuse. The Alliance says, “Many different sexual abuse dynamics affect why a victim may wait to tell, or never disclose at all.”
One of those dynamics, in my experience, is that no one wants to hear it.
When I first started querying The Part That Burns as an autobiographical novel, a dream agent replied instantly to request the first hundred pages. When she finished reading, she wrote:
“[T]here’s a lot to admire about the prose here: the writing really seethes and shines on the page. Yet I’ll admit that I found it hard to read about sexual abuse, especially of such a young character, quite this early in a work.”
One forensic interviewer from the Alliance for Children says: “I have seen that people find it difficult to believe victims’ statements of sexual abuse because so often they have waited months, sometimes years, to report their experiences …. As a professional in the field, this can be frustrating, as delayed disclosures are very common.”
I wrote about my own delayed disclosure in The Part That Burns. I was living briefly with my father then. My mother, who had raised me until age eleven, had decided it was his turn. But my father was remarried—with two preschool children of his own—and his wife, just fifteen years older than me, wasn’t thrilled about housing a pre-teen girl with social anxiety and a tendency to sneak into the “off-limits to stepchildren” upstairs bathroom for the good shampoo hidden there. Here’s the scene in The Part That Burns where I tell a friend about being abused:
Eighth grade is exactly like seventh grade, but worse. The school year is almost over by the time my health teacher, Ms. Nick, shows us that movie about good touch and bad touch. The part about bad touch catches me off guard. I have never thought about things this way, but now, after this movie, I can’t stop remembering Mafia. Ms. Nick says we’re supposed to tell someone about bad touch. But I’m not sure. The Mafia stuff was a long time ago, all the way back in Wyoming. And Duluth. I was little then. Does it even matter now? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, but for some reason I can’t shake it out of my head. I guess that’s why I finally tell Kim about the tickling game. “Eww,” Kim says. “That’s gross.”
“I know,” I say, “but do you think it counts? Like, for what Ms. Nick said after the movie?”
Not long after this moment, the narrator does tell her mom, who tells the narrator’s dad. The narrator remains mostly sure the abuse is not a big deal. At thirteen going on fourteen, things that happened at ten and younger seem forever ago.
Maybe that’s why the narrator so drastically underestimates the cost of telling.
What my mother said, when I told her about Mafia, was not much. My father said nothing at all. No apologies or hugs. No yelling, either. Thank god, no therapy. In fact, I thought the case was closed. What a relief. Only in time did I recognize the gravity of my punishment, which no one named, even as it compounded with time.
The first sign came when my stepmother, in the days after my disclosure, forbade her preschool daughter, my half-sister, from being alone with me. A couple of weeks later, when the school year ended, my father announced I’d be going back to live with my mother. This was confusing since she’d already said she didn’t want me. And within a couple of months of my return, my mother kicked me out of her apartment, throwing my algebra book and underwear out the door behind me. My father didn’t intervene. Luckily, kind neighbors and teachers did. I spent much of ninth and tenth grades living first with a woman I babysat for, then with my Spanish teacher. I would gladly have remained with either of them until I emancipated. But as my mother’s mental health declined further, she started calling the police to report me as a runaway. Once, she even suggested we go for ice cream, but dropped me at The Bridge for Runaway Youth instead—then drove away laughing. By my senior year, I was in foster care. Around this same time, my stepfather, living in a different city, was convicted for felony sexual misconduct for abusing his next stepdaughter. She was older and told faster. Her mother divorced him, and charges were brought immediately.
Here is where I feel compelled to say that I was a straight A student. I didn’t use drugs. Never got detention. I babysat and worked part time at Arby’s. I did eventually start skipping a lot of school as I fell into what I now know—but no one then named—as clinical depression after bouncing through four high schools in as many years during the chaos of my mom’s ceaseless moves and violent mental health crises. Halfway through my senior year in foster care, I stopped attending school altogether—but I kept on with my coursework. My teachers, counselors, and principals ensured that I walked the stage and received my diploma at graduation. Neither parent attended. A year later, I got myself into the University of Minnesota on a Pell grant.
I wasn’t a perfect kid. But I was good enough.
After I disclosed the abuse, I learned the cost of telling. It hurt, but I didn’t regret it. I still don’t. In fact, as the years passed and the abuse’s shadow darkened, I felt increasing urgency to write about it. Ultimately, though, despite writing and publishing prolifically through my twenties and thirties, it took until my forties to learn the skills—third-level emotion being just one—to make this ugly story into something more. To make it “simply beautiful … precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid,” as Joyce Carol Oates wrote when she selected the very first piece I wrote about my childhood for a literary prize in 2015.
I was forty-seven years old then. Thirty-four years had passed since my disclosure in eighth grade. Neither my father nor mother had maintained any closeness with me in adulthood. In fact, I have seen my father twice in the last fifteen years—both times when I was in Florida for other reasons and drove long distances to see him. My mother appears to have disowned me, though I cannot know, since she does not respond to my emails or texts.
So what did it cost me to tell, again?
Between that first story in 2015 and my contract for The Part That Burns, some members of my birth family stopped speaking to me completely. Only one member of my original family—my sister Rachael (six years younger and Mafia’s biological daughter)—supports my work. Rachael took the brunt of our mom’s mental illness when I was living with teachers and neighbors and in foster care. Rachael eventually landed in foster care too, remaining there through middle and high school. My stories, she says, help her untangle painful and confusing memories. For another family member who demands to be “left out of it,” I acquiesce. For my mother, who demands the same, I do not. Instead, before my book launch, I emailed her this:
These events were a very long time ago. But … learning how to write about these traumas was a crucial part of healing from them. We know now that childhood sexual abuse is deeply damaging in a way that is lifelong. The neural pathways it affects are still in development during childhood. But, ultimately, my book … is about healing and moving on, about forgiveness and resilience and transformation, and that’s where my focus is now …. Maybe you can view this book as an artifact of the past, about past versions of ourselves, and be at peace with it. That is something I’ve seen happen with some other writers who’ve been through very hard things in childhood. It’s also okay if you just ignore the book. I totally understand and support that. I just hope we don’t have to have new conflict over things that are over. There is no reason for that to happen. Between Covid and our incredibly unstable national politics … life has never felt more fragile. So it would mean a lot if we can just have peace.
My mother never replied.
When my book came out, I received an unexpected and deeply appreciated outpouring from aunts and uncles and cousins on my mom’s side, people who lived on the periphery of my childhood and who were, to my tremendous surprise, proud of me for writing my story. Not only did they believe me—they already knew. One cousin wrote this:
“I had heard there was sexual abuse with Mike (pig) and that [your mom] was beating on you and Rachael. I’m so sorry you had to endure that, and that nobody came to help. I remember asking my mom, ‘If you know, why don’t you do something?’ It seems so easy when you’re a kid.’”
The Part That Burns doesn’t say much about my father. It isn’t about him. It’s about me as a young mother, coming undone by the incest I thought was behind me but was actually curled up inside. In one dramatic scene, the narrator learns her mother knew about the sexual abuse while it was happening. But no similar scene addresses the narrator’s father, and whether he knew.
Maybe that’s why I said yes when, six months after my book launch, I received an email from a writer acquaintance who was curating an anthology on father loss, lack, and legacy. The editors at her academic press had requested “one more essay, specifically on surviving incest.” The acquaintance thought of me. I didn’t want to write about incest again. Writing about incest is grueling. Besides, as noted, most people don’t want to hear about it.
But I did want to write about my father. I wanted to capture the love I felt—feel—for him, while honoring the ache of his neglect. Unlike my mother, my father never hit me or terrorized me verbally. What he did, mostly, was nothing. And while absentee fatherhood was common in 1970s divorces, it’s not that simple. It has taken decades for me to see my father’s role in the harms I suffered—but, once seen, it cannot be unseen. Immediately after I disclosed the sexual abuse, my father, who—notably—had more than adequate middle-class means, sent me back to my mother, who lived far below the poverty line on student loans. Also, my mother’s sister’s unemployed husband had moved in with her when I moved out.
Again: my father, on hearing that his daughter had been molested for six straight years by her mother’s male partner, sent that daughter to live with the mother and her new male partner. And when my mother kicked me out of her house shortly thereafter (for not having folded the laundry), my father did nothing, just as he did when I was placed in foster care.
Ultimately, my father loss and lack essay centered itself within a particular phone call between my father and me back when my children were babies. I was bereft and desperate with eruptions of repressed trauma. My mother had recently told me she’d known about Mafia all along. Now, I wanted to hear what my father knew:
“Mom’s not speaking to me,” I told my father as fallen leaves swirled in tight cyclones outside the kitchen window. I was steering us away from Mom’s uncles and back to the point. “She drove out here to see our new house, visit Sophie, and we got to talking about Wyoming, and Mafia. Then she blew up and hasn’t spoken to me since.” I paused. “She’s never even met Max.” I shifted my son from one nipple to the other, tucked a tendril of sweaty blonde hair behind his ear. “He’s four months now, by the way.”
“She’s always had that temper,” my father said again. “I don’t know how you managed.”
I felt strangely as if my father were speaking to someone else, someone who was not his daughter. I wanted him to connect our conversation to the little girl I’d once been. “I’m just… I guess the reason Mom stormed out is because she admitted, accidentally, I think, that she always knew about Mafia. Something about how she tried back then to make him get counseling for what he was doing to me? I had no idea she knew all along that Mafia was molesting me, years before I told.” My heart was beating so hard I felt faint. Max pulled off the nipple and arched his back. I hefted him onto my shoulder. “You know what I mean?” I said to my dad.
“Sure,” he said. “I know what you mean. I knew she knew. I knew, too. I think everyone knew.”
The anthology contract fell through. But the essay was published anyway, in spring of ’22, in an online literary journal. The editors said it was beautiful and important. They said they were glad it was in the world.
Was I still afraid of the cost?
If something bad happens and only you know it, that does not make it your fault.
On September 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall first on Cayo Costa then south of Punta Gorda, becoming the first Category 4 hurricane to impact Southwest Florida since Charley in 2004. Also the deadliest hurricane to strike Florida since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.
My father lives 100 miles from Punta Gorda.
On the afternoon of October 11, suffering too little sleep and monster deadlines, I munched not one but two Verb bars, each containing more caffeine than an espresso. Soon after, my phone pinged: a message from the journal that had published my father loss and lack essay five months earlier. Something about an email from a person I couldn’t place. “Your sister’s partner?” they said.
What sister? What partner?
Across the room, my youngest child—Billie, age twenty-seven—clickety-clacked on their laptop. We often co-work at my house, just a mile from where Billie’s foster son, a toddler, attends preschool. On October 11, we were still in the throes of integrating this little boy into our family. He was Billie’s first placement since becoming licensed during the pandemic. Only a few weeks earlier, Billie had picked him up from his grandmother, who had tried but was not quite able to care for him after he was removed from his mother’s home. Billie had driven straight from the grandma’s house to my front door, looking almost as stunned as the baby. But as the weeks passed, both were settling, softening, into a tender routine.
Now, Billie looked up from their computer. “What?” they said.
“Nothing,” I said. “I just ate two Verb bars. Whoa.”
By this time, I was connecting the dots—or seeing through the storm, as it were.
During Hurricane Ian, communication took place between members of my family in Minnesota and Florida. I know because I was told so by a Minnesota family member who demands to be left out of my writing. I do not know exactly what—other than storm stuff—was said, but on October 4, just days later, a 312-word email was sent to the journal by the wealthy partner of my Floridian half-sister. The same half-sister I was forbidden to be alone with after I disclosed the sexual abuse. The same half-sister who, despite our “friendship” on Facebook, does not interact with me. I have not seen her in thirty years.
My half-sister’s wealthy partner said he knew “the family that is the subject of Ms. Ouellette’s essay, as well as the circumstances surrounding its topic.” He said, “[T]o be honest, I found [her book] to be well-written prose.” But he had concerns about my essay because it “… uses real names and … directly accuses the family of a failure to report [maltreatment of a child], which is a third-degree felony in the state of Florida. It’s also false.”
Almost no one goes into writing to make money. Those who do tend to become disillusioned quickly. Most journals are volunteer labors of love with no legal teams to vet things or advise on potential problems. The literary journal that published my “beautiful and important” essay took it offline immediately after reading my half-sister’s wealthy partner’s email.
My half-sister’s wealthy partner could not know “the family that is the subject of my essay and the circumstances surrounding its topic” because that family and those circumstances are ghosts from almost a half century ago.
As for my father: I know what he told me on the phone that day. I know how it felt in my body, still feels now. I also understand why my half-sister might feel protective of my father—her father—who has been a good father to her, as far as I know. It must be painful to read about this version of the man she loves. But she wasn’t alive when my stepfather was abusing me. She was a preschooler when I told, and when my father wholly abdicated his responsibility for the daughter of his first marriage. Has she ever asked my father about these things? Why he almost never visited me? Why he never attempted to know his beautiful grandchildren? She might find it hurtful to learn that my father understood his other daughter was being abused and didn’t act on it, that he knew she was kicked out of her mother’s house and didn’t act on it, that he knew she was placed in foster care and didn’t act on it. However, that something hurts does not make it false.
If only that were so.
I said nothing to anyone the day my essay was pulled. Even though I was with one of the people I love most in all the world. Billie and I are so close we sometimes hear each other’s thoughts. In fact, they probably did hear my thoughts that day when they looked up and said, “What?” But as the adrenaline swallowed me, I said nothing more except, “Wanna take a walk?” And why not, since Minnesota is such a showoff in October, flames of orange and red engulfing the elms. I don’t remember that, though. I remember only my heart, that battered old bird just thrashing, thrashing.
Later, Billie went home.
Later, my husband came home.
Some kids will blurt things out just because they’re scared. But not me. I can keep secrets.
According to The Alliance for Children, victims may believe they are at fault, that no one will believe them if they tell, or that they are impure and dirty.
It would take me weeks to tell the people I love most about the essay being pulled. But on the morning after, I sent an email to the address from which my half-sister’s wealthy partner had written, saying, in part:
You made a strong and erroneous statement to my publisher…that I made false claims…. Unfortunately, trauma tears families apart, but even still there exists today a core group of living adults who had exposure to the open conversations around these abuses…. Undoubtedly, it is uncomfortable for most people to imagine that adults could know about child maltreatment and not act, but this is the case for many, many, many children every single day. I wish it were not so, but it is, and the research backs this up thoroughly.
My half-sister’s wealthy partner never replied.
My half-sister unfriended me on Facebook.
If something bad happens and only you know it, it could be your fault.
If something bad happens and only you know it, that does not make it your fault.
If something bad happens, other people probably know it. It is not your fault.
My essay about father loss, lack, and legacy is back out on submission.
Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award. Her work appears widely in literary journals including Narrative, Masters Review, NAR, Calyx, and other journals, as well as on her Substack, Writing in the Dark. She teaches through the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and Elephant Rock. Find her at jeannineouellette.com.