The wounded recognising the wounded

I had been thinking about Margaret recently, wondering what happened to her, and then, there she was. I just happened

I had been thinking about Margaret recently, wondering what happened to her, and then, there she was. I just happened to glance out the window from my second floor writing space, and saw her walking down the sidewalk. The elderly woman looked the same as the last time I’d seen her several years ago: tall, stick thin—maybe even emaciated. She was wearing the same baseball cap—grey, with the initials of a trucking company on it, and glasses that darkened in the sunlight. Was she still hiding from something?

I had noticed Margaret many times when she was on her daily walk past my house – I could set my clock by her. But the first time she really caught my attention, I was outside working in my yard. She kept her head lowered in a deliberate attempt to avoid me. I obliged her desire to remain incognito by keeping my own eyes glued to the ground, pretending my concerted focus was on plucking weeds from the flowerbeds. One hour later, again, like clockwork, she returned, heading back home.

Something about Margaret intrigued me – the aura of sadness that enveloped her I think. One day, I finally got the nerve to wave and call out to her. “Hello” was the extent of our exchange for a week or so. After that, we began talking a little more, until, eventually; I asked if she’d like company on her walk. Surprising me, she said yes. I tended to be a speed walker, but I yearned to break out of my own isolated lifestyle, even if it meant at a snail’s pace. That’s how we ended up on one of our long walks in the hills above our neighbourhood, a forested place free from people and worries.

We’d talked about superficial things, but on this day, I hemmed and hawed as I revealed to Margaret that I was writing a memoir about my childhood. Almost immediately after I managed to get out the words, “My stepfather molested me over many years, and my mother knew but wouldn’t help me” Margaret grabbed my hand. I could barely hear her: “It happened to me, too.” I stopped and looked around, scanning the isolated area for eyes and ears; my heart pounded. I don’t know why, but I just knew my friend was about to tell me something she’d never told anyone before.

“What?” I whispered back. I felt like I’d just been sucker-punched. Margaret? Molested?

The rice-paper-thin skin on Margaret’s trembling hand felt fragile; I covered it protectively with mine. “I was 12,” she began. “After babysitting for my parent’s best friends, the husband gave me a ride home – only, he took a detour.” Margaret stared at the ground, the bill of her baseball cap hiding her face. She stopped talking.

“Did he do something to you, Margaret?”

Shaking uncontrollably, she nodded. I wrapped my arms around her until she was ready to continue. The man, one whom she had known as long as she could remember, had driven her to a remote area and sexually assaulted her. Without saying a word about what had taken place, he drove her home and dropped her off in front of her house. She went inside and walked into the living room, where her mother was waiting up for her. Margaret sobbed as she poured out the details of what the family friend had done. Shocked by her daughter’s revelation, her mother grabbed the telephone to get to the bottom of it. Listening intently, she looked furious as she slammed the phone receiver back into its cradle. “How could you?!” According to her mother’s friend, Margaret had made up the story. Now, both families had been humiliated by her false accusations. The next day, her mother took her back to the home where she’d babysat the night before. Unable to look her abuser in the eye, she obediently apologised to both the husband and wife for telling a lie. They said they forgave her and wouldn’t hold it against her – she could continue babysitting. The man continued to abuse Margaret over the next two years.

She’d been unable to make friends or complete her education; she had spent much of her adult life going to doctors, trying to find the cause of her debilitating body pain. During our walks and talks, I found out Margaret was in her early 60s and not in her 70s, as I’d guessed. Though married with an adult child and grandchildren, she admitted she lived in seclusion and stayed in her bedroom reading and knitting; she left the safety of her room only to go for her walks. Her body was wracked with pain, she said repeatedly. Most of the time, Margaret’s voice quivered, and I had to lean in to hear her when she spoke; it was as though she didn’t think she should be telling me her secrets. Still, it felt good knowing she trusted me. I thought maybe it was the wounded recognising the wounded.

Over the next few months, Margaret and I grew close and continued talking about our childhood experiences, but then, things began changing. Even though we had a need to talk about our past sexual abuse, we both started holding back. Telling another person about shameful past experiences was foreign, and neither of us knew what to do with the information we had revealed to one another. I always wondered if the world was going to come crashing down on me, and I’m sure Margaret did, too. When you’ve been taught not to tell, and then you do, even if it’s to another person who is telling you their secrets, you’re never quite sure if they aren’t really one of the monsters in disguise. Trust that has been broken, particularly in childhood, can take a very long time to recover from; sometimes it’s impossible.

Margaret eventually stopped walking by my house. A few months later, I spotted her on one of her walks when I was out walking my dog. I waved to her but she didn’t stop. Instead, she turned the other way and began running, like a scared rabbit, through an empty lot in the other direction. I didn’t seek her out to ask why. I knew. Secretly, I was relieved.

Now, I’m left wondering what Margaret was doing walking past my house. We live in a very large neighbourhood, many directions for her to go, so why mine? Is she looking for me? Is she ready to talk?

Share your story below.

  1. This is such a powerful story reminding us that childhood sexual abuse can happen to anyone, that it destroys lives and that has a massively debilitating effect on the victim.
    One hopes that Margaret is able to get the assistance she needs and try to heal the wounds she carries with her. I was most impressed with how well written this story is.

    • Mandy Smith  

      Thank you, Michael. One can only hope Margaret is doing better these days. Many people live long, tortured lives carrying the shame of past abuse.

  2. Mal Pace-Smith  

    I was 60 years old when i first told anyone. Still talking☺.

    • Mandy Smith  

      I’m happy for you, Mal. It’s never too late to break our silence. Keep talking.

  3. What little I have told was to you….have still never told anyone in my family. I am one that believes everything happens for a reason so Margaret walking by your house in my opinion was meant to be. Your talks with her could very well be the beginning of her seeking help or opening up and beginning to heal. Hugs sweet Mandy

    • Mandy Smith  

      Maggie, meeting you has been such a gift. I never knew you had a story, too, yet there has always been an undeniable connection. The wounded recognizing the wounded? That is a gift, too, I think.

  4. Mandy Smith  

    Many thanks to Starts at 60 for sharing my story. The image used was meant for another post, but I’m grateful to all of you who read the article on FB, commented, and shared your own experiences or thoughts on a most distasteful topic. We are of an age now where we can open up about past shame and secrets of abuse–hard as it is. Childhood sexual abuse is just as prevalent today as it was back when we were children. Our voices can make a big difference in bringing this problem out from shadows.

  5. L Locke  

    My older sister was in her 60’s when she told me she was a survivor, molested at aged 12 by our father’s friend who was babysitting us while Mum was in hospital having our baby brother. She told nobody as she was scared our father would use his rifle on him and be up for murder. She first spoke of it at the age of 21, telling her twin. As a teenager I always wondered why she would not let any boy get close to her, breaking off a friendship that was becoming serious. The man who did this to her life never received the punishment he deserved whereas my sister was scarred for life.

    • L, I’m sorry I didn’t get notified of your comment. Your sister, carrying the fear and shame all those years is heartbreaking. Only 6 out of 1000 perpetrators are ever incarcerated. You are absolutely right, the victim may “survive”, but the aftermath of sexual abuse continues to thrive. Thank you so much for sharing that.

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