For my fortieth birthday, my mother told my husband, Bob, she’d pay to hire a male stripper. When Bob asked if she were sure about this, she told him, “Go for it.” My best friend hosted the party with thirty guests. At ten o’clock, the doorbell rang. In came a tall blonde man with a boombox and a big grin. He shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Chas. I’m here to entertain you.” The evening is blurry in my memory, but this part remains vivid and clear:
People move furniture to open the space. I sit in a chair by myself at one end of the living room. Bob and our friends stand gathered at the other. I recall there is somehow a bright light directed at me. Chas hits a button. Music with an electronic “boom-boom, boom-boom” fills the room. Four feet in front of me, dressed in slacks and a long-sleeve shirt, Chas starts gyrating his hips at my eye level. He swings his arms, backs up and twirls around. He pauses, unbuckles his belt, slides it through the loops, then whips the belt above his head. For endless minutes, the belt snaps. Chas flings it to the floor. He unbuttons the top button on his shirt, hesitates, then unbuttons the next. The guests titter. I’m curious, not yet afraid.
Chas flourishes every movement. The long-sleeve shirt slips from his back and joins the belt on the floor. A white Tee displays his muscled arms. Hips shimming, music pumping. His brilliant teeth gleam. He steps closer. Near my face, Chas unzips his pants in slow motion. Circling in front of me, his pants slither down his hips. Silky azure jockey underwear emerges. I’m clutching my hands. My smile begins to hurt. He’s going to keep doing this, I think. Panic fills my chest. I want to close my eyes, but I stop—that would be inconsiderate.
The pants fall to Chas’ feet. He steps out of them. I glance beyond him. My friends are faceless, in shadow. With two hands, he grabs the bottom of the Tee and wiggles it over his head. In silent prayer, I implore this stranger over and over: please, please don’t take everything off.
The prancing goes on for what feels like forever. Chas comes forward and stops. His penis, encased in his underwear, is smack in front me. I blink furiously. The people at the end of the room are so far away. Chas takes two steps backward, turns so his rear is toward me and in one motion, rips off his jockeys. I see the cord of a thong up the crack between his hip cheeks. Chas jumps around. I close my eyes, then open them. He slows his movements, each thrust comes closer to me. His tightly covered penis is inches from my face. I am alone. I am terrified. I am powerless.
Suddenly, the music stops. My eyes widen. Chas bows to me, to the guests. I exhale. It is over. People clap. I think they cheer. I rise from the chair. Here my memory ends.
The next day, Mom called to hear how her gift had turned out. I told her the gyrating went on endlessly. It was hard to sit by myself and watch this man take off one piece of clothing at a time. “I was mortified,” I said. “I was just grateful he stopped with the thong.”
“Oh, I knew you’d be so embarrassed,” my mother giggled. I stifled my exasperation: “Then why on earth did you tell Bob to hire a stripper?” Instead I mumbled, “Well, you were right. I reacted just as you imagined.” But then my mother hiring a stripper was not an out-of-character birthday gift from her. In my family, sex clung to the surface like film on a stagnant pond.
The summer I was seven years old, we moved to a farm. My father started with one Guernsey dairy cow, two Hereford beef cattle, a dozen chickens and three pigs. The following spring, my sister, Nancy, two years younger, and I were helping my father slop the pigs. In the oft-repeated story my family told, the pigs were slurping up garbage from the trough when my father said, “I have to remember to take a sow to Sanders’ to be bred.” (The Sanders owned a boar, I years later learned.) Nancy said, “Why, Daddy, do you take pigs to Sanders to be bred?” My father stared ahead. Nancy repeated her question and again my father did not answer. I took it upon myself to explain it to my sister. “Because Mr. Sanders has a bredding machine, that’s why,” I said. This is where everyone giggled at the retelling and my father’s nostrils twitched as he stifled a laugh.
Within the next several years, I learned about sex through my parents’ banter. I deciphered the leering looks Mom gave my father when she sang, “I’ll be seizing you in all the unfamiliar places…” just that one line as she raised her eyebrows and dipped her shoulder. My father smirked. That meant she wanted to grab his penis and they thought it was funny. I listened to her regale her friends with stories ending in gay laughter that made me suspicious she was referring to sex. When I was ten, she told her friends and us kids that my father had looked her up and down the winter night she came into their bedroom wearing a floor-length nightie, a bed jacket, and socks. “I guess there is nothing doing ‘til spring,” he said. Interpreting my father’s comment meant he wanted sex and was joking that my mother had too many clothes on. I was observant, looked and listened. I wanted to fit in, to join my mother and father in their fun.
When I was fourteen, my bed shared the wall with my parents’ bedroom. Since everyone in the family woke up early to do the farm chores, we all turned in about the same time. As I lay in bed one night, I heard rustling from the other side of the wall. Then a voice became clearer.
“Oh, Dave, no—no,” (giggle, giggle) “Stop it,” my mother said, her voice giddy.
My father murmured something I could not hear. “Oh, you. Cut it out,” my mother said. To me, it sounded like she was enjoying herself. Bed squeaks, bodies shuffling. I decided to join in.
“Come on, Mom,” I said. “Give in and shut up.” Silence came from behind my wall.
Though my parents separated five years later, my mother retold my “Give in and shut up” comment for decades. I became a new star in her anecdotes. I could bat sex around and be part of the grown-ups’ game.
In my family, the four of us daughters developed large breasts. My mother whose chest was mostly flat said her girls got their big bosoms from milking the cows. When my older sister was a teenager, she played on a softball team sponsored by a local business. “Stewart Paint and Deck” was printed on the front of her uniform. My father took one look at her shirt, bobbed his head up and down as if he was having trouble reading the words. Mom thought he was being hilarious and made the same head motions with us kids. Wasn’t our father a real joker?
He nicknamed my sister, Nancy, “Chester” and me, “Buster.” On occasion, he’d call us those instead of our real names. One day as I came bounding down the stairs, my father said, “Watch out. You’ll give yourself a black eye.” His sexualized comments sounded funny to me. I repeated them to friends, oblivious to whether they were entertained or appalled. As with most children, I experienced what went on in my family as normal. I absorbed the cues, became inured to inappropriate behavior. Like fluid through membranes, that behavior passed into me.
When my husband was approaching his thirty-fifth birthday, I mailed blank pages from a scrapbook to his grade school and college buddies, to our friends and family members. Collages, photos, poems pasted to these pages arrived in my mail box in the following weeks.
On the side of my father’s contribution, he wrote in bold letters: “ROBERT—Couldn’t think of a thing to say until I contacted the C. I. A. and they came up with these past excerpts from your dossier!” He had cut off the insides of ten birthday cards he had received and glued five on the front and five on the back of his scrapbook page. The signatures of Jan, Judy, Loretta, Big Bad Martha, Lorrie, two by “Me” (but in different handwriting) and Precious identified the female senders. Several cards referred to him as a very special person; four were signed “I love you.” Half the cards contained sexual messages—“Go out and get seduced!!” (the sender added “by me only”), “Guess I am just horny today!” “You give me the ‘Hots’!”
My parents had not lived together for fifteen years when my father compiled his page and I had heard he had other women in his life. He, who saved swimming cards from his Camp Dudley days, drivers’ licenses from the 1930’s, all the communication from his children, had cut up cards from his lovers and sent them to his daughter’s husband. I opened his manila folder when it arrived and thought, of course, my father would send something related to sex for his contribution. His virility defined him. I decided where to place his page in the scrapbook without a thought about the women whose messages he’d discarded, the ones who promised love and sex. I ignored the swirls in the “J’s” and the “L’s” in Catholic school girl cursive, the print of a second-grader in another. It did not register that it was unacceptable for a father to share with his daughter evidence of his many carnal escapades. I found his page clever. I had become complicit.
Three years later, we gathered at the Delaware shore for an extended family reunion. Vacation photos show uncles burying various children in the sand, me with my six-month-old son, group pictures with the three generations. In a photo my husband took, Nancy and I stood on the beach with our arms around each other’s shoulders, our jersey tops stretched across our breasts. I sent a copy to my father. On the bottom, I wrote, “Buster and Chester.”
My dread during the stripper’s disrobing opened a sliver into my blindness to the impropriety of my parents’ sexual references. In a phone call when my father was in his seventies and I in my mid-forties, he recounted that his doctor had noticed scratches on his back and asked how they had gotten there. My father proudly said, “Who do you think put them there?” He was certain from the younger doctor’s reaction that he was impressed. “I’m probably getting more than he is,” my father added. At the time, I thought, this is gross. The last thing I want to hear about is your passionate sex. Yet I said nothing to him.
In 2012, seven years after my father’s death, a discovery forced me to acknowledge my participation in the sexy banter. While returning Christmas decorations to the crawl space in our guest bedroom, I noticed a white gift box on the floor. I didn’t remember ever seeing it before. Placing it on the flowered comforter, I lifted the lid. A greeting card on top with a rolltop desk in the background, a cream sheet of paper with script, “A Letter to My Father” indicated what I had found. The box stored a large collection of cards and letters I had sent my father from the mid-1960’s through the 1990’s. I must have brought them home when I helped clean out his condo after he moved to the nursing home.
I always took special care in selecting cards for him. For Father’s Day when I was sixteen, I chose what I thought was the perfect one, though it wasn’t in the Father’s Day section. On the front, a large cartoon elephant sat on its haunches. The elephant looked tenderly at a tiny mouse at its feet. The gray mouse with a skinny neck and big ears gazed adoringly at the elephant. (My six feet, four-inch father weighed two-hundred pounds to my five feet, three-inch ninety-two.) Inside, the caption read, “Ours is a strange, but wonderful relationship.” To me, the card portrayed my special feelings for my father, he for me and our contrasting sizes. But to my parents, it indicated something different. My father took it to his morning coffee-klatch with the town banker, the insurance man, the plumbing contractor and the newspaper editor. My mother described the card and caption again and again to her friends. It was puzzling why this card was garnering so much of their attention. I decided they thought I was being a little risqué like Mom when she told a naughty story. I might please my father by turning flirty with him as I had never thought to before.
Now in the guest bedroom, I picked up the first card on the pile. The inside inscription read: “So many of the good things in my life I owe to you—the way you taught me confidence and how to see things through…the many things you’ve done for me that show how much you care…” The sentimental messages for birthdays, Father’s Days and Valentine’s Days repeated again and again. Then I came to a card that made me stop.
“Valentine—You’re my Kind of Person!” (below a cartoon woman and man, nose to nose, stare into each other’s eyes, little hearts float above their heads), (inside) “You silly savage!” (signed) “To my favorite pop! Guess who?!” I dropped the card and stared out the window. The web of dark branches tilted in the wind. I swallowed twice. I read one card after another, ones sent before I was married, ones meant to be exchanged by couples, not a father and a daughter. A big red lettered heart with “Valentine I could go for someone like YOU” (inside) “Not YOU, but someone like you!” In my neat little script, I had written: “cuz that’s incest! Love to my favorite pop.” A dizziness swirled in my head. I could not believe I had ever sent such cards.
Shame overwhelmed me. I felt foolish, deviant. I tried to rationalize that my parents had been the adults. Following along with their constant sex talk, I had joined in. Yet that intellectualized observation seemed thin. It could not dim my humiliation at having mailed my father sexual messages. The cards remained buried in the box.
When the #MeToo movement burst on the national scene, I did not feel qualified to join it. I faced one instance in my career as a therapist where an agency director had told a joke about a man with a gun shooting off his balls when crossing over a fence. I thought that was the only time someone in authority had behaved in an improper sexual manner with me.
The revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s, Charlie Rose’s, Matt Laur’s abusive behaviors toward women piled up in the media. The lines of what was okay had moved; behavior that had been accepted before in society was now identified as pathological. The refrain from “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “With sex, sex here, sex, sex there, sex everywhere” began repeating in my ears. I kept thinking about how my parents created a sexualized brew that permeated our home. They had been my bosses when I was a kid. Yet I found no identification with the MeToo victims.
Rather a brazen light flooded me. I could no longer hide. I had giggled and repeated “Watch out, you’ll give yourself a black eye,” had written “Buster and Chester” on the bottom of the photo, had sent Valentines with suggestive messages to my father when I was an adult. I was exposed. How come I felt disgust at my behaviors now and not then, when I should have? My regret at being so clueless overwhelmed me with sadness.
Slowly, in time, I have come to understand what was at the core of the sexual byplay in my childhood home. My parents were a couple with little in common—he from a struggling middle-class family, she from one of declining wealth, he frugal, she a spendthrift, he headstrong, she easily swayed, he a planner, she not. Sex was the thing they enjoyed, the one thing they shared. It also had a power construct.
Many of my parents’ behaviors around sex involved a put-down, someone was the butt of the joke. After church one Sunday morning, I, age thirteen, was teetering in my new high heels and carrying a straw basket purse with artificial fruit on the top. A piece of the fruit fell to the sidewalk. My mother said, “Oh, careful, Carroll. I think you lost your cherry.” She and my older sister laughed, so I imagined it must have something to do with sex. I felt puzzled, then silly that I didn’t understand what they were talking about. As I came down the stairs, my father said, “Watch out. You’ll give yourself a black eye,” poking fun at my body part, poking fun at me. He ripped out the caring inscriptions from his lovers and passed them onto his daughter’s husband, demeaning their affection. Mom instructed my husband to hire a stripper for my fortieth birthday. For her, the humor was in imagining me squirming throughout the performance. The joke was always at someone’s expense.
I re-examine the bedroom scene when I told my mother to give in. I knew my parents would find my comment funny, not rude. What troubles me is that I was assuming my mother’s “No” was not real. My father wanted what he wanted and he always got his way. My mother deferred. I had observed it repeatedly. By urging her to surrender, I was aligning with him. To challenge my father, to tell him to stop, would have threatened his authority. I was figuring out how to navigate the lines in our family.
As with any man who continually boasts, my father’s fixation on sex masked his insecurity. My mother propped him up, became the megaphone to promote his virility. She amplified his sexual innuendos. I, in turn, echoed her, practiced what she had done. I repeated back to him “Buster, Chester” that he assigned to Nancy and me. I mailed him inappropriate Valentine cards that I thought would please him. Decades earlier I had learned to play up what was important to his image. Even when I believed he crossed a line by telling me a woman had raked his back during sex, I refrained from saying I didn’t want to hear about it. On a subconscious level, I understood that his bragging indicated a fragility I dare not confront. To do so would wreck the myth of his power. Only after his death, did I come to understand I was protecting him.
It is curious to me that my mother knew before I did that I would be mortified by the stripper removing his clothes. Prior to the event, if I had considered a male striptease scene, I’d thought it would not faze me. I was shocked at how miserable I had been during it. A rupture had occurred. I was disentangling myself from the emotionally poisonous environment in which I grew up. I could no longer participate in sexual byplay when the target was supposed to be the joke.
It would take thirty plus years from the birthday party and the advent of the MeToo movement for me to recognize the shame inherent when sex is used as a power tool. I have come to understand the victim sometimes participates in the entrapment to stay connected to the one she wants to please, the one she wants to care about her. She may blame herself for being party to the gross misconduct. Perhaps I have more in common with the MeToo victims than I have previously thought. Perhaps it’s time for me to let go of my shame.