Breaking the pact of silence
My mother was raped by an elder from her church, someone she trusted. A man of God, or so she thought.
She told her mother and her mother did nothing.
This cut deep.
Her mother, presumably the person who loved her most at the time, did not take what happened to her seriously. She behaved as if the rape was a matter of little consequence.
Did my grandmother not take it seriously because the consequences would have been too great? Or did she not take it seriously because she thought that her daughter brought this upon herself?
These two questions could be answered jointly: my grandmother may have convinced herself that my mother brought the rape upon herself, otherwise it would have meant not only going after a man of her church but also that she would have had to leave her church in shame.
Besides, even if she reported the violation, it was my mother’s word against the rapist’s and he was a well-respected man in his community, a man whose words carried weight.
I can imagine these sorts of things going through my mother’s mind and there is no clear resolution, given that my grandmother chose the route of silence, the route of less effort. My mother was raped and, in effect, she was left to deal with her problems on her own.
One of the deepest forms of isolation imaginable is when one is left alone to deal with a problem that threatens to bring about a spiritual breakdown.
It happened years ago, before my first breath. She remains angry to this day, hoping for justice that she knows will never come, even wishing at times for his death. She was always open and frank about her ordeal with her children from when we were old enough to listen. And she has told me on a few occasions that I must tell her if anyone does anything like that to me.
I fully understand why rape survivors often become suicidal. My last suicide attempt was a year ago. I am happy that I failed, but I am not happy with life. I have hope, however, which helps explain why I am telling my story.
Connect the dots
But I, too, have had to confront the chilling silence. My mother still complains about the evil that befell her from time to time but she never seems to connect the dots that unite our lives in darkness.
I have decided to call myself Nomvula, for I must remain anonymous. I have always liked that name. Nomvula, child of the rain. The name speaks to my reality, a reality I did not choose, that I do not want, but that I must learn to live with. I am who I am because of what happened.
Sacrificing the person who could have been Nomvula – that person whose name my mother chose – was the price paid for she who stands here today. Nomvula is a beautiful name, suggestive of incurable sadness. Horror wrapped in a mantle of beauty. Nomvula. It is not my fault that it is always raining.
My brother is seven years older than me. I love him. At some level I do. I also hate him. This impossible tension is paralysing. In his presence I remain distant, neither hating nor loving. Both and neither. Confused. Unable to make up my mind to condemn him, to leave him forever behind. Unwilling to erase him from my life as my brother, thief of my childhood, and even of my ability for sexual love.
I struggle to see sex as something sacred. It is just something that people do. I want to love my brother as one should love a brother. I want to love him because we grew up together, under the same roof. But the memories cannot be erased.
If only he would talk about what happened, perhaps even apologise. Perhaps this is too much to ask.
For the price of a confession would at least be the irreparable collapse of the circle of love that envelops both him and me, a circle kept together by a pact of silence, a silence indistinguishable from a lack of care from those who are supposedly closest to me – my mother in particular, the rape survivor who seems unable to draw the line connecting her son with her tormentor.
Destroy my family
No, this won’t happen; he won’t apologise, look me in the face and tell me that what he did is unforgivable – that he will have to struggle for the rest of his life with the thought that he did this to me, over and over again, for six years – for that would both open a chasm that would destroy my family and make the reality of his actions more palpable than he can bear. Assuming he cares. I want to believe that he does. But I see no evidence of this.
There is only the silence, the pretence of normality at family gatherings; that not even he knows what happened despite the fact that he did this to me, that not even my mother knows, despite the fact that I told her.
She must have been shocked. Her beloved son, violator of his sister. The ghost of the man of God must surely rear his ghastly head when she thinks about my brother’s exploits.
I know too well that these two opposing understandings of the self-same person – her son – cannot easily be reconciled.
She must know what happened – my brother stopped his surreptitious visits after I told my mother – but that is the only evidence that I have from the outside world that I did, in fact, tell her.
Am I making things up? Am I crazy? Did my brother actually do these things to me, or did I simply cook everything up? I couldn’t have. I couldn’t have made up so many years of torture.
Besides, a cousin was there on one of the occasions when my brother decided to make an incursion into my body. But she, too, acts as if nothing happened.
She knows that I have participated twice as a survivor in the Silent Protest event in Grahamstown, where she also studies, but she has never asked any questions about why I am now a survivor.
She congratulates me for my bravery in speaking out, but has never asked – never made the space available – for me to speak out to her.
I was born in 1994, a year of jubilation, but my real name should have been Nomvula.
I was four when he started. I barely remember the first time but I am pretty sure I was four. I couldn’t have been much older. He came regularly and every time I just wished that he would end it quickly.
He is my brother, my torturer. These two pictures are irreconcilable. I was shocked every time, a shock that I am confident was inscribed in my face, a face that communicated the irreconcilable tension between the two images I still have of my brother: my beloved brother and my violator.
That face, to someone who is not attentive, who is using me to sate his thirst – as if I was the masturbator’s hand – may appear to be the face of indifference.
My lack of resistance could have been read not as the face of someone enjoying intercourse (try to picture a four-year-old enjoying this) – but as the face of someone who is at peace with my role as my brother’s sex toy.
I could not violently resist. How could I? My brother.
Perhaps that is why he carried on violating me for all those years, without apparent guilt, without seeing horror in my face – without witnessing the struggle that probably would have occurred if the violator was a stranger.
It was the horror, among other things, of living in the impossible situation of being unable to reconcile my brother’s two sides.
For, as I said, I was paralysed, frozen inside, hoping that he would finish quickly and that he would leave me alone, at least for a while.
What my face was showing, but he was not in a position to see, was that he was destroying me.
I must protect my brother from shame and suffering, so I must call myself Nomvula. I must also protect my mother from shame and suffering.
I am responsible for my assailant’s wellbeing, for he is my brother, my torturer. And I am responsible for my mother, despite the wall of silence that will forever keep us at a distance.
But I must also stretch out to others who do not meet me with silence. My voice must be heard. I must stretch out to those who are able to listen and to offer me a love that can bear to hear my story.
Nomvula, which is a pseudonym, is a student at Rhodes University and Pedro Tabensky is the founding director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes.