Cherilynn Fiver‘s essay: You’re Only as Sick as Your Most Shameful Secret

It was the early 80s, so I must have been seven or eight, making my brother five or six. Our mother seemed to always be in her room, preoccupied with the college classes she’d never completed. My little brother’s dad worked full time as a pharmacist. Our mom used to work at the same pharmacy, which was where she met my brother’s dad. She cheated on my father with him and eventually left my father for him when she discovered she was pregnant with my brother.

Whether it was acting out Saturday morning cartoon battles with our action figures, piggyback rides in the pool, or making up comedy skits, my brother and I found ways to keep each other entertained. We also loved to play “house” in the shadows of the vast overlapping trees in the backyard. My brother made mud pies while I tried to keep up with the never-ending sweeping of the foliage on the ground.

I do not remember if my brother and I ever played “house” with the girl next door, who was a few years older than us. I do know we played “doctor.” I think her name was Stephanie. She had dark hair and a chubby face. And compared to our house, hers was run-down with dirty windows and knee-high weeds.

At seven, you look up to the older kids in the neighbourhood. I was no different. I had been indoctrinated to always look after my brother, so where I went, he usually followed. I remember being on the side of our house that faced hers. Stephanie pulled her pants down, and my brother and I followed. I remember her wet hurried kisses down my spine. I know that is not all that happened, but I can’t remember many details from the actual encounter. I knew to tell our mother, and we were no longer allowed to play with Stephanie or look in her direction.

Shortly after Stephanie sexually assaulted my brother and me, we started giving each other short soft kisses on the buttocks while the other stretched out on their stomach. We would wait until our mom and his dad headed to the basement to work-out, while we were left upstairs to watch television. We would take turns, keeping a watchful eye on the basement door. The act itself was calming, soothing, and felt good. There was nothing else, no spreading, no fingers, no other body parts, nothing. I feel the need to state this. I also feel the need to express that this incestuous behaviour also did not last long. Thank God.

I was kissing my brother’s ass (literally) when his dad swung open the door from the basement, earlier than expected. I can still picture his sweaty face frozen in anger and horror, lips pursed. After staring at us for what seemed like an eternity, he yelled down the stairs for our mother. We were told never to do it again, and we didn’t. Less than a year later, my brother’s father would leave our mother and go on to marry a woman he is still with to this day. Karma. Am I right?!

In 1985, when I was ten, our mother took my brother and me from our home in New York to live in Nevada. My biological father had no idea where we were. My little brother’s dad? He knew what state his son was now calling home.

My entire life, my mom told me that my own father was a “bad man who did bad things,” so I rarely saw him before we left New York. I was always confused because the very few memories I had with my dad were happy ones. But I believed my mother, as a child tends to do. I had to lie and hide in Nevada for years so that my dad would not find me. I was told that meant being separated from my brother if he did.

It wasn’t until my early 40’s, while I was looking into court and medical records and spoke to family on both sides, that the full truth slowly emerged. My mother kidnapped me back in ‘85 as my father was seeking more time with me – and was awarded it! My father never abused me. That lie was told to keep me afraid and quiet, and it worked for many years. Needless to say, I do not have any relationship with my mother. I have a supportive and loving relationship with my father, which I’m thankful for as it took years to create.

It is a complicated story, but you can read more in my 2017 memoir, But You Look So Good and Other Lies. My book was labelled a so-called “tell-all,” yet I purposely left out Stephanie. I was not ready to relive it then. I’m not even sure if I’m prepared to tell it now, but here I am. Why? Because I know that secrets can destroy a soul and a family.

When those hormonal teen years approached in the late 80s/90s, my brother and I grew apart. We had different friends and interests; it happens. Our twenties brought me the birth of my daughter, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, significant weight gain, and the growing realisation that our mother was devastatingly flawed. For my brother, it brought several addictions and white-collar crimes. After a while, I stopped trying to get my brother on the phone or commit to getting together. I resigned myself to seeing him at the few family functions he would attend, accompanied by superficial conversation.

Even knowing the damage that a secret can do, the research for this essay regarding the connection between secrets and your mental and physical health has been an eye-opener. According to an article in Scientific American dated 2/5/19, researchers have linked secrecy to increase anxiety and depression. Secrets can also make us feel alone and isolated. The American Brain Society states that secrets create bad energy and have more power when they are kept. I know the stigma of talking about what was done to my brother and me, and what we did together has caused me unbelievable shame.

I can only imagine the difference it would have made in our lives had we been taken to a doctor and/or a therapist at the time. Or, if what happened was not this unspeakable decades-old secret. My brother grew up to be a bit of a playboy, while our mother taught me that sex and my body were shameful. My family has never uttered one word about Stephanie or what happened afterwards. My husband and young adult daughter will know only after bugging them to read a draft of this essay. I hope they can understand and forgive me. My therapist will also be getting a copy.

Our mother would go on to marry and remarry a few more times, having two more children. In her 60’s, alcoholism would catch up with her, affecting her health. My brother and I have also stopped speaking altogether. I hear he felt my memoir told stories he does not want his sons to know. Many of our stories are intertwined, and family dynamics needed to be explained in my memoir. I wonder if my brother knows that his own father and stepmom signed off on my memoir, adding notes to a draft.

I have learned to own my shit, learn, and grow from it. Maybe my brother can do the same. I also want him to know that I am letting this family secret of all secrets go. I hope he can too – the chilling realisation washes over me that my little brother may remember even less than I do. Do you know who does remember? The adults! My hands are shaking. I can hardly type.

When I anxiously shared this essay with my husband, he read it and put it down without words, leaned over and embraced me. That was the first time I ever broke down over this story. The ugly cry into his shoulders felt good. I felt lighter. My sweet daughter then read it and hugged me a few extra seconds longer than usual. Their love and support are what matters to me. I am no longer ashamed. I have taken back my power.

Cherilynn has essays, poems and works of fiction published in various magazines and journals. She’s also the author of the 2017 memoir, But You Look So Good and Other Lies. 

One comment

  1. Very well done, and may I say, very courageous of Cherilynn to have spoken so candidly. I can say from personal experience – it is not an easy thing to do. — But, I suppose some of us have indeed got to do it nonetheless. At some point of time, we’ve just got to have our lives laid before us, as clearly as we can manage. Congratulations.


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