I always knew to be caught stealing would be disastrous.
When I secretly began doing it, at age eight, I was in awe of my father’s worldly belongings—the smooth texture of his calfskin wallet, the smell of cologne along the lapel of his woolen suits. I’d lie awake until our home fell silent; then, I’d slide sideways off my mattress, slink to my doorframe and crawl across shag carpeting into my parent’s bedroom. Once inside, I’d barely breathe while worming my body to the oak valet stand that held my father’s suit, keys, change and wallet.
My mother was overworked and often emotionally absent, but I loved my dad in that deeply special way an “only girl” with four brothers can. I sat beside him at dinner; I listened while he sang his tenor renditions of show tunes; I let him see daily, in small ways, how much he mattered to me.
Why steal, then? Why risk all that? At eight I didn’t fully understand my choice. Even now a complete and logical answer is difficult to articulate. But one reason emerges—as a child I desperately wanted something I could call my own.
My brothers had their exclusive “boy’s only” clan, my mother had her inner world and my father had his professional life. I belonged to none of those worlds, so I felt bereft. At the same time, at any moment, my privacy could be intruded upon, because my family was pathologically enmeshed. My world felt like a mixture of deep estrangement and a complete absence of personal space and boundaries. It all left me wanting something. Something tangible and valuable and mine.
As far as the thefts were concerned, wintertime nights were most fruitful, because my flannel pajamas skimmed noiselessly over waxed floors. I imagined myself lithe as any cat burglar. Underneath the moonlight, the shadow of my father’s valet stand loomed like a gray, headless, skeleton. Once beside it, I’d slow-motion myself into standing position, swing open its tiny felt-lined tray and pilfer his quarters; then I’d swiftly spider, on three limbs, across the hallway and back into bed.
The mornings after I stole from him, my father’s voice would startle us awake at dawn. “Goddammit, Carmen,” he’d bristle. “Where’s my goddam change?”
“How’m I supposed to know?” Mom would answer in high pitch. “I didn’t take it.”
“I had 75 cents yesterday. Je-sus Christ. How’m I supposed to pay for lunch?” He’d pause for an answer but rarely get one. “Get the kids up. Now.” On good days, Mom wouldn’t comply. Instead she’d hurry in her housecoat to cook Farina, which we all hated, especially with prunes in tart syrup.
Initially, the thefts caused limited excitement, except for the terror they induced in me. Eventually, when my father repeatedly failed to flush out the perpetrator, his responses intensified: He’d storm from room to room, sometimes raging for more than an hour searching for the “goddamn thieving liar.” I was usually put through the first round of interrogations, but quickly dismissed as the culprit. “Christine would never do that, Lou,” my mom would beseech. “The boys might. Not her.”
My mother’s opinion rarely held weight in my home. But on these occasions, my father believed her implicitly. Admittedly, I was extremely compliant. From a very early age, my parents counted on me to be a stable nurturing influence—to care for my insouciant brothers, to help my overwhelmed mother, to be grown up like no little girl possibly could be. While my brothers were mostly feral—wielding pocketknives, igniting fires, exploding things—I folded laundry, did homework, ironed oxfords, cooked casseroles and, sadly, tended to my mother during her frequent nervous breakdowns.
I never used the quarters I stole. Spending them was not the point—owning them was. I’d study them hidden inside my tee-shirt drawer, touching their electric surfaces. They were something I could count on. Literally.
At the end of the month, when bills couldn’t be paid, my father would become particularly irate about the thefts. He would undo the buckle of his leather belt, strip it quickly from loops in his polyester pants, fold it in half and charge us. “One of you stole my money yesterday,” he’d accuse, fists clenched. “I’m going to strap you each hard until I find out who.”
I’d be dismissed before the beatings accelerated. Maybe I’d receive one good strike against the backs of my thighs, something fierce enough to raise double foot-long wheals. Then Dad would let me go, which I assumed was his way of loving me, of demonstrating I was special. Even so, my legs burned while I skulked around a corner, transfixed by my brothers’ pleading denials and shrieks. I wasn’t normally bent towards compassion for my siblings—they were often bullies and frequently did things simply to frighten me—but I didn’t want them beaten, and to hear that happening was terrifying.
I felt dreadfully ashamed, but that shame never prompted me to confess. The stakes were too high, and with time they grew exponentially higher. What would Mom think of me if she found out? Who would she turn to when she despaired? And my brothers—what would they do to me, after suffering like they did? Worst of all, would I still be special to my father if he knew the truth?
It was unthinkable. Even before I stopped reading Nancy Drew mysteries, I understood the vital link between love and deception, between secrets and shame and survival. I loved my family, but I was clearly deceiving them. My secret caused me to experience an oppressive degree of shame, but I knew to reveal it would put me at risk with everyone. How would I survive? Surely I would be lose everything if my family knew.
One Saturday afternoon, shortly after I turned 11, my mom went grocery shopping, and my brothers were out riding bikes or hurling rocks at squirrels, and so it was just dad and I home together. “You look tired, honey. You okay?” he asked tenderly.
It was good to own dad’s quarters, but it was much better to have his undivided, loving attention. “Come here,” he added. He waved his arm in a big circle for me to follow. “Lay down,” he said, patting his bedspread. “Let’s take a little nap.”
I eagerly inched underneath covers. My father snuggled in behind me—the first man I’d ever spoon with. Within minutes, he was touching the tips of my little breast buds, a thing so shocking that all I could manage to do was tremble, clamp my eyes and feign sleep. But more followed: his hand breaching the elastic of my underwear, and worse.
I knew he was doing something wrong, but in my naïve loyalty I was more worried about how he might feel if he knew I were awake. Wasn’t that what love was about? Wasn’t it about protecting those who might be doing wrong? More importantly I wondered: What will become of our specialness if he sees I know what’s happening?
Already his quarters were worthless—he’d touched them, too. I feigned sleep so that I wouldn’t lose what little love I thought was mine. In the midst of my family’s chaos and violence, I knew if I revealed my secret I’d have absolutely no value and nothing to call my own. Very soon afterward, I recognized how my secret would tear the thin fabric of my dysfunctional family widely apart. I couldn’t do it.
Trapped beside my father, in a situation far beyond my understanding, I kept my eyes shut as long as I could take it. Then I pretended to waken suddenly. Abruptly, I raced barefoot through the kitchen door. My father didn’t follow.
Outside, the grass seemed overly green, too sharp along its edges. I squatted, examining each blade, confused by the transformation. The sky looked foreign, too. Even the air felt different. Nothing made sense.
Before that afternoon, I’d never considered how I might spend a day. I simply “was.” But that afternoon bore a daunting, unanswerable question that I suddenly had to answer: What now? My lifeline became divided into two sections—the time before my father touched me, and the time afterward. I became divided, too, largely from myself and my feelings about that experience. To examine it too closely, and to reveal it to others—those paths seemed fraught with enormous loss and heartache.
Once again, secrecy became my means for survival. I cloistered my secret from my family for decades: through high school, college, marriage, children and divorce, even through my father’s illness and death. Meanwhile, it stole away little pieces of me, bit by bit, until whole swathes of my existence began to disappear—sleep, health, comfort, love.
My father never touched me again. In fact, he often avoided me—which was devastating, since I still pined for his love. My secret would surely trigger a series of catastrophic family losses. Meanwhile, whatever little specialness did or didn’t exist between my father and I was completely lost.
Fifty years later, that question has eased considerably. It began to ease after I told my mother, when she was 80, what happened; it eased when I realized, through her unflinching support, that I’d always possessed something invaluable, something that couldn’t be secreted inside my hands nor lost by telling my truth—her unconditional love.
By listening, my mother honored my story. She grieved with me about it, and she grieved over her own part in it. Through her devotion I realized I didn’t own anything exactly, but I absolutely had something—and it was precious.
I think of my experience much more often now that I’m older, now that it seems less threatening to face. It fills me with great compassion for other women who’ve chosen silence over declaring their truths about incest or sexual assault. I realize that many of these survivors face the same brutal question: How much might they might lose, how much more trauma might they bear, should their secrets become known? Regrettably, I also deeply understand how, for some, the cost is simply too great.