by Audrey Kearns, May 2012
When I was three years old, my nanny liked to hold me under water in the bathtub for long periods of time. She also liked to force feed me and shove my face into hot plates of spaghetti. The bathtub is different than the food stuff because I have no memory of these drownings but I do remember the spaghetti and getting a lettuce sandwich stuffed down my throat.
I’ve lived my whole life with fear. I wake up with fear. I walk out the door with fear, I talk to people with fear, I walk through my day scared. It may not seem that way to my friends, family and colleagues but that’s because I know how to work with it, I’ve learned how to adapt. You’ve heard of functional alcoholics? I’m a functional scaredy-cat. In addition, but related to, I have issues with authority and not in a cool rebellious “fuck you” kind of way but in an “I’ll do exactly as I’m told,” kind of way. I won’t break rules, I won’t question people and the thought of a confrontation will bring on a full anxiety attack.
My family did the right thing. My family never hid what the nanny did to me. My parents did a great job of talking to me the abuse, but we talked about it so much that I started to think of it as a fable, a tale, a fiction. I didn’t see the horror in it. What my parents and I didn’t realize is there was a deep deep festering wound that this woman left on my psyche. I’m 40 and I really just started putting the puzzle together. I’ve understand why and who I am. Everything starts with Magda. Yes, her name was Magda-an awesome name for a villain, right? But it’s true. Everything starts with Magda.
My parents were in foreign service. My family was stationed in Budapest at the time. They both worked at the embassy. This was during the Cold War and it was a very depressing place which, of course, I didn’t realize because I was three. Magda was hired through a nanny service that the embassy provided to care for my sister and me. I don’t know what it was about me that made her hate me so much. What I did or said, but she did hate me. I’ve thought maybe I was spoiled, bratty American, now I realize: Bullshit, I was three. THREE!
So here’s the story of how Mom found out about the abuse as told to me by my mom and my sister, who was also there. My parents came home from work early and my mom told Magda that she could have the rest of the day off. So mom starts to give me a bath. I get my hair washed and my mom goes to rinse out the shampoo and I flip out. I become completely hysterical and start flailing and screaming. My mom of course was confused, is this just a tantrum? She tried again with the same result of me freaking out, splashing and trying to get away from her. My mom, now upset, tells me to calm down. I don’t. My dad comes in and tries but when he comes near me I scratch his face. At this point he slaps me which brought me out of my hysteria. My shocked mother turns around and sees my older sister who was 4 or 5 at the time, sitting in the corner of the hall, and she is rocking back and forth. The reality hit my mother like a ton of bricks. She knew right then and there that something had happened. She gently talked to my sister who was resistant because Magda used the old “if you tell anyone, you’ll be in trouble” trick. Eventually, my sister told my mom that Magda would rinse my hair out by holding me under water. She would only do this only to me and not my sister. My sister also told mom about the force feedings that she would also only do to me. So my mom came to me. I still had shampoo in my hair, I was still crying and very scared. She made a deal with me. The deal was that from now on, only she would wash my hair. No one else, not even my dad. No one could bathe me but my mother. So that night she rinsed my hair gently with a washrag. It took some time. After a few weeks of that, she started using a cup to rinse my hair and after a few months, she was able to lean me back and rinse my hair in the faucet. She built a trust between us.
So, like I said, my family was always open about what had happened. There was no hiding it or stuffing it down. We even laughed and made fun of the incident. But even with everything out in the open, I still ended up the most timid, insecure and frightened one out of my parents 4 kids and, as I said earlier, always doing what I was told and questioning nothing. My parents didn’t think anything of it. They observed a quiet, obedient kid with straight A’s that they didn’t have to worry about, so a lot of focus went to the rest of the house. But inside I hated that I couldn’t speak up for myself or ask for guidance. I just could not do it. I blamed my parents for being military strict when I was a kid but when I was out of college and out of the house, nothing had changed. I still couldn’t bring myself to question anything or take any chances. It wasn’t just emotional, I physically could not do it. The fear was just too great. I felt I was destined to forever melt away in the background.
I’m 40 now and I find myself going through a personal Renaissance period. One day, after spending time with my beautiful three year old godson, Magda popped into my head as she occasionally does. But this time it was different. Thinking of how tiny and innocent my godson is, and of how tiny and innocent I must have been, I cried. It was the first time that I didn’t think of the Magda incident as a fable, a tale, a fiction. The first time I ever cried about it. So now, I think differently about this bathtub incident that I cannot for the life of me recall. My brain has completely blocked it out. But I’m starting to get a clearer picture of how this period defined how I function, who I am. And, now that I’ve recognized that, I make a little more sense to myself. I find myself taking chances more often, moving through that fog of fear with my eyes wide open. I can say what I feel a little easier now. I feel that I have right to be here. I’m not that scared of people now. I even find myself, every once in a while, telling someone to suck it and it feels good.