Thursday, March 28, 2013

Haunted By Memories -- So Long Ago

"Can I ask you a serious question?"

It was the voice of  Pennie, a high school classmate, busy organizing our upcoming 50th class reunion and calling long distance to give me a report on the attendance list.

And she told me that, in her calls to our classmates, she had heard some impassioned negative reactions from several of my fellow day students (we were a distinct minority at our high school, which was primarily for boarding students from all over the world). She said that they were still haunted by memories of sexual harassment from Sister X, who was our senior class advisor and principal during our last two years of school. She said that these classmates had told her -- independently -- that Sister X used to come into the room where day students changed for gym and stare intently at the girls, deriving sexual pleasure that seemed obvious to some of them and, in some instances, tried to find excuses to touch them.

Pennie asked if I remembered anything like that happening in the gym changing room. For a moment, I was speechless.

I have no memory of such a scenario.

Of course, I was in the gym changing room as rarely as possible.  I loathed volleyball and basketball and was always the last one chosen for an unlucky team. But I did become something of a legend -- for my gym excuses. I think I reported having my period (a valid gym excuse back then) for three years straight and then, my senior year, I got out of gym with conflicting drama practice and work on the school newspaper and yearbook. So I wasn't often in that gym changing room.

But sadly, I don't discount their memories. Sister X always seemed more than a little sexually obsessed. She used to see double meanings in the most innocent comments. And she brought a sex crimes folder, filled with lurid crime clippings, to our Adult Living portion of religion class, reading a sex crime of the day and telling us that men could be dangerous.

So while I have no memory of Sister's sexual intrusiveness, it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. She was unlike so many of the rest of the nuns, who were so kind and generous with loving support, encouragement and praise -- and were never inappropriate in their affection toward us.

What also doesn't surprise me -- as it did Pennie when she heard their stories all these years later -- is that not one of these girls told a parent. It might have meant being whisked out of school in the middle of senior year and not being able to graduate with their friends. It might have meant their accusations getting a very public hearing to her impassioned denials -- and embarrassment or banishment to the victims. It was easier to keep quiet.

That has been true of many victims of sexual transgressions by clergy and by other trusted adults.

But, oh, the cost of that silence. I'm sad that the pain still lingers for them after all these years. So many years after Sister X was suddenly transferred away from the school two years after we graduated. So many years after her death from complications of Alzheimer's. So many years since they felt so young and powerless.

I feel sad that their anger and pain makes them not want to see peers who were once childhood friends, that they want to close off all contact and reminders of an era that had its share of pain as well as pleasure for all of us. There are so many moments in our vulnerable younger years that we all remember with pain -- perhaps being excluded or ridiculed or criticized -- and with quiet thanks that our lives have moved on.

But sexual harassment and abuse is different. Feeling young and powerless and threatened is a horror that can overshadow adolescent friendships, kindness, fun and the extravagant dreams that flourish in those final months of high school.

I do understand. But those empty spaces, those missing faces, as our class reunites to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation and receive golden diplomas in a special ceremony at our old high school, will make me sad. I can only imagine how that long silence, that simmering anger, those painful memories may have impinged on the rest of their lives -- and I quietly and fervently hope that moments of peace and happiness in their lives have far outweighed the haunting memories that linger still.


  1. Even those brave children who dared to tell a parent were often not believed; or if they were, their parents felt helpless to challenge those inside the church. It was a daunting situation for youngsters to face. No wonder it marked the rest of their lives in many cases.

    I think the thing that bothers me most is the apparent lack of remorse on the part of the perpetrators. Maybe it shouldn't surprise me - if they did wrong to start with, why would they suddenly have a crisis of conscience when they were found out?

    With you, I hope victims have had peace and happiness in abundance, but sadly, I don't think most of them do.

  2. There were two high school Physical Education (female) teachers who decided one day that we all had to get photographed in panty and bra, so that our posture could be checked. We all stood in a line while the teachers took our pictures and we were able to hear what the teachers said. I remember how they stared extra long at a beautiful and mature girl named Leticia, how they admired her "posture." It only occurred to me years later what they were really doing. I never considered it harassment because they didn't ogle me; they skipped right over me. I wonder if there was film in the camera. I wonder whether they even took a picture of me. Maybe they only photographed the very very "mature" girls.

  3. I am so glad we live in different and more transparent times, but the fact that it is still going on is infuriating to me. I have to call CPS at least once or twice every school year to report what children have told me and I'm sure there are still so many more that go unreported.

    What an eloquent, thoughtful post.

  4. I am sad that your friends may not join you -- I suppose it could go either way: healing journey or step into a dark past. It's interesting because in all the Catholic church sex scandals, you hear about the priests and not the nuns -- it is hard to imagine that it might not affect both, yet it is little spoken of.

    Sexual harassment doesn't go away because the perpetrator does. It can take a lifetime to heal and forgive. I hope they can find that within themselves.

    Happy Easter, Kathy.

  5. Good Morning, There was a priest caught taking pictures of a young girls. He is suppose to be sentenced in September, but he was one that was just transfer someplace else instead of the problem being dealt with. It is sad that there is so many things that is happening more and more these days. Unfortunately some play on the child's fears, which is not right, but they think that they are home free. Have a wonderful Easter. Hugs and Prayers from Your Missouri Friend.

  6. Oh My---what an important issue today, Kathy. When People who have been sexually harassed are afraid to report it to someone are just giving that horrible person reason to continue doing it --over and over. Sister X maybe have been transferred from that school --but I wonder where she went and how many other little girls did she abuse???????

    BUT--our culture is such that the victim becomes the bad guy if he/she reports it. For most, it's just not worth reporting... OR --maybe they reported it to their parents and the parents did what mine did when I told Mom that my brother had sexually abused me.. IGNORE it.... Makes the victim feel guilty and feel like the bad guy.

    We need to change that--but I don't see it happening. Did you read about the group of football players in a high school in PA raping a girl at a party???? YES--they were all drinking, and the girl should never have let that happen. BUT--they raped her. She did report it --and now she is HATED in that community because the boys are football players and loved... Crazy, isn't it?


  7. What a dreadful thing to still live in those girls memories to affect them after 50 years. I guess pain doesn't have a shelf life . Like Jeanie, I was a bit surprised to hear about nuns being involved. I guess we have come to expect tales about the priests, but I had never heard about a nun. I like to think we women are above behavior like that. Guess not.

  8. I agree Such awful things to remember.

    Teachers are supposed to be people of trust like your parents.
    If you need sex then you should leave the Sisterhood/ Brotherhood. Whats the point of being a sister if you have other more important needs.

    Have a Wonderful Easter Week end. :)

  9. You wrote about this topic is such a powerful and wise way that I can only hope that others who might have suffered such abuse will read it and find healing. My heart breaks for these girls, but I know that in our generation we would never report such things. Sadly, things have not changed much. The victims continue to be victimized.

    I'm glad you found excuses to skip gym. I have such unhappy memories of those days in gym class myself. I remember older girls who harassed us, but at the time, I had no idea that I could stand up against it. Thankfully, it was just minor harassment, if such a thing exists, but it was painful to endure.

  10. Dear Kathy, like you, I "quietly and fervently hope that moments of peace and happiness in their lives have far outweighed the haunting memories that linger still." Peace.

  11. It's not always terrible experiences that will keep your classmates away from a reunion. I have no interest in attending a high school reunion. When I left my home state for college, I never looked back. I lost touch with classmates. I sometimes get friend requests on facebbok from former classmates and don't have any memory of who they are. I guess I just prefer to live in the here and now. It is sad that people let abusive events impact their life so many years after. To be a victim 50 years later...sad!

  12. Anyone see the movie "The Magdalene Sisters?" I can't help but be reminded of it while reading this. I strongly recommend seeing it.