I’ve asked that. But it was never a real question. I was always sure I knew the answer: “She couldn’t.” In other words, guilty. Because any mother who was so indifferent or oblivious to the signs and syndromes of her victimized children and/or the inevitable trail of clues from the perpetrating partner should be found guilty of criminal negligence… right? And then, of course, if the mom did know… well, lock her up as an accomplice.
When I asked that question, what I was really saying was, “How could my mother not have known?” As a child, I was a bundle of behaviors, from food refusal to self-mutilation. My father had a disgusting collection of pornography, which included torture pornography. He was compulsively adulterous, even taking a date to an office party when my mother (his wife) was in the hospital giving birth. He was violent, forcing sex on her immediately after an episiotomy. He was cruel to animals and a bully to children. I was completely terrified of him. How could she not have known?
For the first three decades of my life, I experienced a great deal of shame and confusion… from the trauma, but also from the complex PTSD that pervaded my young adult years. It was a great relief when I became politically aware of the oppression of women, because it enabled my swing over to self-righteousness. Still stuck, still rigid, but at least not at fault anymore. My new mantra became: “How could a mother not know that her child was being sexually abused.”
So, here comes this book that takes my question more literally than I ever did. A History of a Pedophile’s Wife is a page-turner memoir by Canadian feminist Eleanor Cowan, describing the toxic landscape of her family life in the twentieth century, surrounded by secrets and patriarchal theology and institutions. Reading Cowan’s book, the question in my own mind began to morph into “How could my mother have known?”
Following Cowan’s journey, I had many occasions for remembering those words. The perpetration I experienced was probably the tip of an iceberg. My mother, a lifelong practicing alcoholic, had protected her marriage in so many arenas, hiding her drinking, hiding his philandering, standing by him in political scandals, making up excuses for her bruises, rationalizing the chronic emotional abuse … I really have no idea what was behind that door she was so afraid to open. And I have no idea what that avalanche of truth might do to her. She knew the answer to both when she begged me to drop the subject.
The author of A History of a Pedophile’s Wife has the courage my mother lacked. She does open the door, and there is an avalanche. And she shares it in compelling detail.
Cowan found something else: a group called Parents of Sexually Abused Children. The attrition rate was very high, but those who stayed learned how to shatter the silence about family secrets. In this group, the author lost her shame, found her voice, took ownership of her experience, became accountable to her children… and shared the story.
My own mother went to her grave with her secrets, and the best I could do was to manage a diffident wave “good-bye” across the enormous gulf of denial that separated us. No closure, I thought. But actually I did get closure, and I got it from A History of a Pedophile’s Wife. I saw the parallel universe, the alternate reality, and I think that has healed me a little.
So, with that, I recommend this memoir to survivors, to mothers who failed to protect, to providers working with trauma patients, and to survivors of religious abuse… especially those whose trauma was perpetrated or enabled by Catholic teachings and institutions. Also a great read for anyone who appreciates a courageous and dramatic memoir!