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Silence about sexual and domestic abuse is unacceptable

Carole Bender

I was the happiest kid in the world once. Great parents, the best little brothers, good grades. I was in advanced reading and loved to read.

I grew up in a small village of about 500 people in Alaska's Far North. Everyone knew everyone. I was free to roam and play as I pleased. I had an older sister who I thought the world of. I had an uncle who was awesome; he would take me to the movies, carry me on his shoulders and always had candy or little gifts for me. But our family had a dark side.

One of my first memories as a child was seeing my pregnant sister fighting with her boyfriend while my parents were at the store. I ran upstairs and yelled at her boyfriend to stop hitting her. He picked me up and threw me down the stairs. I got up and ran to the store to get my dad and he rushed home without me. When I got to the house, my sister's boyfriend was on the floor. He looked lifeless. My father was standing over him. He turned to me and told me to go and get the cops. I did.

My sister's boyfriend was medevaced to the hospital. I really don't know what had happened, but it was then I realized as long as I had my dad I would be safe. Life continued, and soon the whole incident was basically forgotten.

A few years later, my mother got accepted into physician's assistant school in Seattle, Wash. She didn't have anywhere to live, so my parents decided to take a trip down to Seattle to find one, leaving me and my brothers in the care of one of my aunts who was under strict instruction to watch us in our own home. But it didn't exactly work out that way.

My aunt very quickly spent all of the money my parents had left her to pay bills and buy food with. She began drinking and smoking marijuana. Soon my life began to turn dark.

Because my aunt couldn't pay the bills, the heat and electricity in our home were turned off, food became difficult to find. We couldn't stay there anymore, so my aunt took us to the house of other relatives -- relatives who drank heavily, relatives who had a bad reputation for bad behavior.

Their house was disgusting. There was feces and urine on the floor. I was only five, but up until then I'd never seen alcohol or an intoxicated person -- or if I had, I hadn't known it. I was overwhelmed with repulsion, but my main concern was for my two younger brothers. I felt responsible for their safety above all else.

5 years old, awake, listening

One night, while the adults were in a complete and utter drunken stupor, my life changed forever. 

My brothers and I were in a pile of blankets on the floor, trying our best to sleep, but the noise was unbearable. I wrapped up my little brothers in the covers and tried my best to console them. I kept telling them that Mom and Dad would come and get us soon and they seemed to believe me. Eventually they fell asleep, but I could not.

I remained awake, listening.

My favorite uncle, the one I mentioned earlier, was in the room. He came toward me in our nest of blankets. He was intoxicated. He sat next to me on the floor and told me to lie down. It didn't feel right, but I followed his instruction. Soon he started rubbing my body all over. I tried to push him away, but being a child I was no match for a grown man. I could smell the home-brew on his breath and it was the nastiest thing I had ever smelled. He continued, unabated, as I struggled under him.

At school we walked in line to the gym. I had become angry. I was no longer the happy carefree kid I'd once been. I didn't want to go. I didn't want to do anything. The teacher's aide hassled me; she asked me why I was being such a lollygagger. Her words must have provoked me because I busted into tears. I'd remembered what I'd been taught about "good touch, bad touch," so I told her what had happened to me, thinking she must have known something. After all, she was an adult and I was a child.

She looked me in the face, sneered and with a high pitched whiny voice repeated my words back to me. After mocking me, she told me to hurry up. From that point on I never told another adult about the incident. 

It wasn't long after that my brothers and I were brought to Seattle to be reunited with our parents. I didn't tell my father what had happened. I often thought of him beating my sister's boyfriend almost to death, and for some reason did not want him to do the same to my uncle.

Eventually we returned to my village and in the fourth grade, I started to get very sick. I threw up often and my stomach was always hurting. I lost about 15 pounds on my already tiny body. My parents didn't understand what was wrong. Several times they took me to hospital in Bethel, the closest urban center to our remote Alaska village, but the doctors always said the same thing. I was faking it.

One day I threw up dark thick blood, so my parents pooled up enough money to take me to Anchorage. While there I got an endoscopy and it was discovered that I had bleeding ulcers.

The doctor knew right away and brought me into a private room and asked me point-blank "had someone been bothering me." I broke out in tears, but held my tongue. I still couldn't talk.

The doctor prescribed me medication to help the ulcer pain, and my parents and I went back home.

Living with trauma

As the years went by I continued to keep my secret to myself, but the trauma I'd endured as a child had other ways of expressing itself. I wore extra large clothing to hide my body. I would not let my mother fix my hair. I didn't want to be attractive to men in any way. Before I would go to sleep at night, I would surround myself with chairs and other big objects so that I could hear if anyone came near me.

I soon discovered I wasn't the only one in my family with a secret. My uncle was doing the same things to some of my younger relatives.

As one of the eldest females in the family this infuriated me, and, at 17, as I geared up to go off to college, I decided enough was enough.

At the time I thought, 'I'm never coming back here anyways,' and so it seemed right to end the abuse. I called up the Alaska State Troopers and told them everything, including what my uncle was doing, or had done, to my younger relatives.

After I spoke up, some of my cousins also told. Others did not.

A week or so after I made a statement to troopers, I stopped by my relative's house to say goodbye. My uncle was there. He'd read his indictment. When he saw me he yelled at me. "Why did you say these things about me?" He screamed, "I'm going to go to jail for a long time!"

With force I replied, "Because that's what you did to me, even if you were too drunk to remember!"

My grandmother, disturbed by the noise, came out of her room, she was upset. She told me that I shouldn't say those things about my family members and that we should always keep the peace. I was so hurt; I didn't understand why my grandmother wasn't defending me. How could she think that what my uncle had done, not just to me but to the family, was OK?

So I left for college. My uncle went to jail. My grandmother and I stopped speaking.

I felt a new sense of freedom knowing that my uncle was paying for what he did to me and would not be around to do it to my younger relatives. I felt empowered for the first time.

About two years after my uncle was arrested and convicted he called me. He told me that if I didn't forgive him I was going to go to hell. Clearly, he still did not understand the magnitude of his crime. Still he didn't seem to see it as his fault.

As for my grandmother and I, we reconciled. At 23 I called her and asked her why she thought what my uncle had done was OK. I was crying. She apologized.

Sometimes you'll turn a blind eye to injustices in the name of keeping the peace, but what kind of peace is worth keeping when abuse is the price you pay? Sometimes keeping the peace means speaking out.

Carole Bender grew up in the village of Kotlik in Southwest Alaska. She is the creator and curator of Modernative, a blog and open discussion forum for a wide range of issues affecting modern Natives in Alaska. Visit Modernative for more.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.