I planned on being a virgin on my wedding day. Well, that’s mostly true. The real truth is that while I wasn’t sure if I could wait long enough to boldly wear white as I walked down the aisle, I definitely did not intend on knowing more than one person intimately—figuratively, literally, or biblically. Have you ever heard what they say about the road to hell? Let’s just say that intentions simply aren’t good enough.
See, because I came from a long line of divorcers and divorcees, unlike many of my Christian private school peers with whom I attended high school, I had no intentions of exchanging my cap and gown for a veil and bouquet immediately following graduation; this meant that my physical desires, which I was told were natural, had to be put on reserve until I met and married “the one.” That was the way I was taught, and so that is what I believed. But when it came to sex and relationships, that was about all I knew for sure until about a year before I decided to write this book. Up until now, I thought I was mature enough to handle a lot of what I’m about to share with you. Age—no matter how legal you may think it makes you—isn’t everything.
I know, I know. There is something mind-boggling about being eighteen. Suddenly you think that just because you can vote, you are mature enough to handle all of life’s adult decisions. The thing is, while—thanks to puberty—your body may tell one story, your mind is lagging somewhere between “Mom, I should be able to do whatever I want” and “Every time I make a mistake, I’m expecting a bigger, more experienced adult (my mom) to pick up the pieces.” Yes, being a young adult brings forth blatant contradictions, especially when it comes to processing romantic relationships.
For me, because I had seen so many people do marriage the wrong way, I knew a successful one required more than two people who shared the same last name and bed. There had to be money to pay bills, compatibility to get along, and a desire to help one another fulfill their destiny in life. Raging hormones and the best off-camera impression of a couple from a favorite chick flick wasn’t going to cut it on even the best day.
That wasn’t to say that marriage didn’t have some perks that piqued my interest, to put it mildly; however, having a balanced frame of mind was not my strong suit, mostly because so much of my childhood was imbalanced in so many ways, especially socially and emotionally. While I was wise enough to know I was not ready for the responsibilities of marriage, I was so needy for affection—especially from the male gender—that I was willing to put myself in harm’s way to partake of marriage’s privileges. Patience was a virtue I thought I couldn’t afford—and as a result, I paid a high price, but it started way before I lost my virginity (well, gave it away. I know where it went).
On June 17, 1974, despite my mother’s troubled pregnancy, my married parents gave birth to a baby girl. My mother told me that because of all of the medication she was on prior to delivering me, for a moment I gave them quite a scare because the doctors feared I had a mental deficiency. After many prayers and a pastor coming in to anoint me (just like the Word says), a miracle took place, and soon I was walking and talking with the best of ’em. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of my early years. I have flashbacks of a sandbox in the backyard of my house in Lincoln, Nebr., memories of Mardi Gras-like beads that hung from an entryway of the house, and two cats affectionately named after the ’70s comedy classic, Laverne and Shirley. I also vaguely remember that my father was a Dallas Cowboys fan and that I had a surrogate grandmother, whom I am told I visited often, but that’s about it. All in all, not too bad—for the moment anyway.
I was two when my parents divorced and my mother moved back to her parents’ home in New York. There, things became a little more vivid. I recall a light blue two-story home with an attic and a merry-go-round in the backyard. I remember it was there that I saw the first Christmas tree (that I could recall), had instant Cream O’ Wheat for breakfast, and was introduced to such fashionable accessories as my grandfather’s golf caps. It was also where I witnessed the love usually reserved for human beings given to my grandmother’s poodle, Toy. I recall going to one of the most luxurious apartments I had ever seen, which belonged to my great-grandmother Brown, for one-night slumber parties, pancakes, and The Brady Bunch. I also remember going to my great-grandfather and his wife’s home where I was spoiled rotten—and was scared to death of their shower curtain with the spider on it. To this day, the memory of it gives me the creeps.
Sure, to be the child of a single mom at age three had its share of dysfunction, but all-in-all, life still seemed to be “a-okay.” Then my mother met a man who would become the only father I’d really know for the next twelve years of my life. He was really tall, really dark, and really nice. Soon we developed our own relationship that came with nicknames-n-all. He was my “chocolate cake” and I was his “sweet pie.” Looking back, I don’t really remember my mother’s interaction with him, and the first time I can recall them kissing was at their wedding. My mom had one of those Dorothy Hamill pageboy styles with baby’s breath in her hair. She was beautiful, that I know for sure because she always had been. I can’t remember what I had on, but I do remember standing at the beginning of an aisle that seemed to go on forever and looking at my tall, soon-to-be-stepfather and his even taller younger brother and thinking to myself, Something ain’t right, and crying. A lot and loudly.
Looking back, I think that was a huge red flag to everyone in there, especially my mother. You know how they say that a child can see a person’s real character? Although I was fifteen before I would fully know what was so wrong with the tall, dark, and nice man whom I first called “chocolate cake,” then later, “Daddy,” I think deep down inside, on that hot summer day just days before my fourth birthday, I knew something wasn’t right with him becoming my mother’s husband or my father.
At the time, he was a musician, so we moved to Nashville, Tenn., the home base for his singing group. I was an adult before I knew the financial struggles we had our first few years there. All I recall are roller skates, dolls, and the time I almost lost my life while using an outlet as the ignition for my invisible car. Back then, life still seemed to be pretty good. My mother and I would go downtown at least once a week for story hour at the big, public library, and later we would go window shopping after having lunch at a dainty tea shop. I don’t remember much about how my mother and new father interacted with one another, but I do know that was the closest my mother and I would be for quite some time.
I was three weeks shy of six when my baby brother, Jonathan Christian, came onto the scene, and at first, I wasn’t very happy about it. It wasn’t that I minded having a younger sibling. It was that I minded that younger sibling being a boy. To be honest, the thought of that even being a possibility never even crossed my mind, so when one of my parent’s closest friends told me, “Shellie, you have a baby brother,” I was less than pleased, and it took some major convincing to get me to go and see him. It was a few years later before I realized just how much of a miracle Jonathan was and would be in my life. He too had a rough time coming into this world, but you wouldn’t know it looking at his little face already smiling in the hospital window. That Sabbath in May of 1980 was the day I saw a healthy male image. I would need it.
I’m not sure if things actually got worse for my parents around this time or if I was just old enough to notice some things. At times, it was harder to sleep late at night because they were talking so loudly to one another. This was also the time that I actually remember seeing my mother cry for the first time in my life. There were still good memories, like learning how to ride my bike, stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, playing outside with the neighborhood kids, receiving pre-Sabbath surprises (like a new purse or dress), and watching my little brother grow up, but as I began elementary school, things definitely got more complicated.
From time to time, the loud, late night talks became physical altercations, and I didn’t know how to handle it. I was too young to keep two adults from hurting one another, but too old to ignore the fact that it was hurting me. So, I would do things to medicate the pain. Sure, they were stupid, but they served as distractions. At first my distractions of choice appeared to be pretty innocent. My mother had always told me I was a very intelligent child, so schoolwork was never much of a challenge for me, although shutting up so that other people could finish their work always was. At first my parents would be called in for my talking. But soon it elevated to talking back to teachers and even a few bouts of shoplifting. My parents would ask me what was going on with me. I didn’t know how to say it at the time.
As an adult, I remember my mother sharing stories with me about her childhood. Some of them made me laugh out loud (like the time she fell off of the porch from her tobacco buzz), and some of them made my cry for her on the inside. She came from a home that made our family seem like The Cosby Show. Because her father was a Christian … and an alcoholic, in his drunken state, he would beat my grandmother and his two children, believing he was justified. Sometimes out of frustration, hurt, and rejection, in return my grandmother would beat them as well.
I know my mother loved me, but around my pre-teen years, she too must’ve been pretty frustrated and felt pretty hurt and rejected. Now, I’m not saying that I wasn’t a handful from time to time, but as I got older, there were less girlie dates and more spankings that eight times out of ten started out as my fault, but ended up as beatings (welts and all) that were ten times out of ten her fault. Nothing I did ever seemed good enough for her, and after a while, I stopped trying as hard. She called it disobedience. I called it getting a tougher skin so the verbal or physical lashings wouldn’t hurt so much.
Daddy always took up for me though. That might have been a part of the problem. Although he too was stern, when he spanked me, it never left a bruise or scar. In him I found safety, while in my mother I found fear and resentment; soon he became my favorite parent and my best friend. He seemed to enjoy spending time with me. We listened to music and watched television together and even took long walks. But what I really liked about my Daddy was that I could talk to him about absolutely anything. To him, I was his beautiful princess, and I needed that kind of reassurance. By now, I had big lips and an overbite, acne on my face, and so-so hair—all of the wrong accessories for high school.
Although I knew a lot of people, growing up I only had two lasting childhood friends. One was an angel; the other was my adversary. I met Angela when I was twelve years old, and I envied her from the start. Even in the awkward stages of adolescence, she was what I considered to be perfection—tall, with long hair, great teeth, and flawless skin. She lived with her original parents and four other siblings, and they all seemed to love being with one another on a consistent basis. I went over there every chance I got before she moved away to Atlanta. To this day, she is still one of my closest friends.
Then there was my adversary, Melissa. She too was attractive, but not as beautiful as my distorted self-esteem made her out to be. Since I could remember, she had always been in my life, and to this day, I really don’t have one good memory about her. When I was about eight, I remember her locking me out of her house and leaving me with her huge dog. I don’t know what left me wetter—his slob or my tears. When I was about ten, she tried to teach me how to write in cursive while sitting in church. All I remember her saying is, “If you weren’t so dumb, you would be able to catch on faster.” At twelve, while riding in the back seat of her parents’ car, I recalled her asking me what I thought my best physical trait was after she ran down the long list of her own. I told her I thought it was my eyes. “Girl, please,” she said. “More like your hands.” But when you feel like you’re not good enough, just enough seems like enough. She wasn’t the best kind of friend, but she gave me attention, and I figured bad wasn’t worse than none. This mentality got me into a lot of trouble with a lot of people down the pike.
Without my angel, Angela, on my shoulder, Melissa’s voice was even louder in high school, which was the last thing I needed. There, I was a minority in every way—including my skin color, but also when it came to my looks, my style of dress, and my personality. And if you want to be popular in high school—back then anyway—being a unique individual rarely works in your favor.
Anyway, at any given time, there were probably literally twelve black girls in the entire school, and because of my “exceptional qualities,” I was never the pick of the litter. This is where I began feeling the real effects of being an underdog, and since I had come from a lineage of women who felt hurt and rejected, I found it quite easy to beat up on myself. Often.
Although I had been valedictorian and president of my eighth grade class, after my freshman year, I didn’t see anything above a 3.0 (and that was if I was lucky). In high school, although being smart was just as vital as being pretty and popular, guys only paid you attention if you were a triple threat—and if you had to be missing one of the three, smart is what they were willing to lose. I had already received the prize for academic excellence. I wanted to be rewarded for social acceptance—especially on the dating scene.
You definitely don’t always get what you want. My first two years consisted of me listening to other girls talk about the guys they liked versus the ones who liked them back, and although we never had a prom (private schools rarely do), we did have a Valentine’s banquet that nearly gave me a heart attack when it came to finding a date. My first year, my closest male friend from elementary school served as my escort. That was the first and last memory of a date that I had until my senior year, although I did receive some male attention—more than I asked for or was prepared to handle—my sophomore year.
One Wednesday before Thanksgiving break, I was standing outside waiting on my ride home. The two terrors who I’ll call Mutt and Jeff were outside doing what they always did—teasing girls and touching them. Throughout my story, I will share different lessons that different guys have taught me over the course of my life, and as much as I wish I had skipped this class, Mutt and Jeff taught me a valuable one: No one has the right to touch your body or talk to you any old kind of way at any time, no matter what. But more than that, we as women—young and old alike—should value ourselves enough to know that no one has the right to touch our bodies or talk to us any old kind of way, no matter what; no matter how starved for love, attention, admiration, or affection we may be, we should allow God and our destined mate to fill us.
Although I was a virgin, ironically, I wasn’t sexually ignorant when it came to the basics, just the advanced courses (like emotional preparation and responsibility). Since I can remember, my mother had age-appropriate books and videos filled with information about sex and why it was something I should wait for until marriage. She was always available for questions, for which she also gave age-appropriate responses. When I about six, I recall watching Family Feud with her and the game board “dinging” the answer “make love” to a question I cannot remember. When I turned around and asked her, “Mommy, what’s making love?” she said, “It’s kissing in the dark, Shell.” As I got older, the questions got a little more graphic, while my mother’s answers remained age-appropriate. Soon, I was finding myself wanting to know more, and so I enlisted my Daddy as my new sex counselor.
Now, he was great, or so I thought. I later came to see he was not educating me, but rather entertaining himself. No matter what the question, he always had an answer for me, but there are times when you can receive entirely too much information, no matter what the age. For instance, one time he took Melissa and me out to dinner. I couldn’t have been more than twelve or so (Melissa was two years older), and we were asking my Daddy questions about guys—you know, what it meant when they did this or said that. Melissa was the connoisseur of male company and served as a greater mouthpiece than I did. At this point, puberty had set in and things were sticking out, and although I had been touched a few times, it was always my breasts, never my heart. I had also been kissed by a pretty popular guy in high school, and in appreciation to the affection I was given, I gave him a card. In response, he gave one back—a torn up version of mine in front of all his friends. My Daddy knew my pain, and so he said something that I guess was supposed to have cheered me up: “If I were to make the perfect woman, she would have your breasts (mine) and your butt (Melissa’s).”
I was so starved for attention that at first I smiled, while sticking out my chest like the proudest peacock on the block. A man had told me that I had the makings of the perfect woman. It was a couple of years later before I realized that the man who said it should have never seen me in that way. In the early years, you think that whatever’s modeled to you in your home is normal and healthy. When you are trying to get male attention, the first person you run to is your dad—no matter how distorted he may be. A father has the power to set the tone of what goes on outside of the home as well. I mean, if my own dad found me to be sexy, why should I question two horny teens when they sexually assaulted me?
Mutt and Jeff were as different as night and day. One was white, while the other was black. One was an extrovert; the other was an introvert. One was brilliant; the other was … let’s just say, less than brilliant. As a matter of fact, if it hadn’t have been for the sick bond between them—the beginning stages of sexual addiction due to their own childhood issues and teenage pressures—I don’t think they would have even been friends. But their issues made them the best of friends—at least for that semester—and the culprits of what would be one of the most terrifying moments of my life.
Mutt and Jeff were always joking around, and admittedly, I was an extrovert like Mutt (loud, talkative, and a little intimidating), so no one thought anything of it when they pulled me into the back of Jeff’s car that day; everyone was laughing, including myself. But as they drove off of the campus, I found myself getting more and more solemn.
“Where are we going?”
“I want to go back to school.”
Mutt was in the back seat with me, laughing and rubbing on my breasts with one hand while holding me down with the other. Let me make something clear before I proceed. Those two guys sexually assaulted me that day, no doubt about it, and if I had been older, I would have pressed charges (all the school did when they found out was suspend them for a couple of days), but this was not the first time they had touched a part of my body that was private. In school, whenever they would pinch my butt or pop my bra, I would laugh or giggle in a flirtatious way (so did a lot of the girls). I was so starved for some guy, any guy, to take notice that I never checked them on it. I should have. My need for male attention set the stage for their need to receive sexual stimulation.
As Mutt got louder, so did I. I tried screaming, cursing, and kicking, but they were both athletes and much stronger than I was. When Mutt pulled out a pair of handcuffs, I was horrified, but after a brief wrestling match, they were on my wrists, making me very uncomfortable in every single way. As we reached the back of a strip mall, I grew silent. By this time they had ripped open my shirt as well as my bra and had done about everything they could think of with my breasts. As Mutt reached for the zipper on my pants, I looked at Jeff with glassy eyes. Earlier in the year, I had actually had a mild crush on Jeff, but as most guys had, he rejected me. I was hoping he would again. Being tag teamed in the back of an old car one day before Thanksgiving was not my idea of a romantic first time. People were so used to me being rowdy that I think my silence scared him. After arguing with Mutt for what seemed like an eternity, they let me go and left me there, behind the strip mall—ripped clothes, exposed-n-all.
I went home and eventually told my parents. I guess since I talked about matters of the opposite sex with my father more than my mother at that point, he was better prepared to process the situation. He was furious, but not with me. He was the one I remember going to the school to have a talk with the guys as well as the principal. I was always a little more sexually curious than my mother could handle, so while my Daddy was warning them, my mom was blaming me. “What did you do? What made them comfortable enough to pull you into their car? What were you wearing? You have been known to change your clothes at school from time to time, and it’s not like I haven’t seen you playing around with the neighborhood kids. Are you telling the truth? It’s not like you haven’t lied before. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
She’s right. I had lied before, but not about anything of this magnitude. But her response made me wonder if a part of me deserved it, as if it possibly could have been a consequence of something I had done behind her back or something. Either way, having low self-esteem and topping it off with a bout of sexual assault followed by rejection from your mother only set the stage for more abuse—this time closer to home.
During my high school years, my mother was in a profession that caused her to travel from time to time. By the time I was fifteen, she was actually gone quite a bit, but I didn’t mind. Over the course of time, we had gone from being best friends to two people who basically tolerated each other’s presence, and at times, we weren’t even doing that very well. She made it a point to tell me that she loved me, but I didn’t feel like she did, and when you’re young, lip service doesn’t count for much. I later found out that my mother was hurting in many areas in the worst kind of way, and although she often directed her pain in my direction, it wasn’t because she was blaming me. It was that she felt she had nowhere else to go. The only emotionally available person in the house was me, her firstborn, and she often didn’t buffer the emotion before soliciting my services. That wasn’t an excuse. That was just the fact.
It was many years, prayers, tears, and a conscious reconciliation on both of our parts before I was able to come to that resolve. At the time, all I knew was that she was hurting me, and when she was gone, it stopped, so I wanted her gone as much as possible. Seemingly another man’s treasure is one man’s junk. On the other hand, my Daddy seemed very bitter about her professional endeavors. Although I’ve never confirmed this fact with any questions directed his way, I think a part of him resented my mother for becoming who he always wanted to be—a top notch in the entertainment industry, rather than a house-husband. But his anger did not manifest itself in verbal insults or physical altercations. No, he chose a more cryptic route.
I was fifteen, the Christmas that I asked my mother a question that would change our home as I knew it forever. “Do you think Daddy would sexually abuse me?”
I’ll never forget the look on her face or the reason that caused me to ask her in the first place. Around age twelve (ironically around the age that I started getting breasts), my Daddy started doing things that I didn’t really know were wrong, but I definitely questioned. You already know the butt/breasts incident, but there was more. Things like him allowing me to talk to him while he was in the shower. Things like him exchanging my birth name for “PC” which meant Perfect Curves (I hated that by the way) and singing “Brick House” to me every chance that he got. Things like him initiating explicit sexual conversations even when I preferred to talk on the phone to my friends, or worse yet, go to bed. Things like him never allowing me to lock the bathroom door when my mother was out of town. Things like him sitting on the couch across from me while exposing himself. Things like him touching my breasts. Things like him coming into my room late at night, although to this day, I can’t remember why he was there or when he exited.
All of these incidents, coupled with phone calls from strange women and a movie I had seen just a few days before (Something About Amelia), led me to this question. I don’t really remember what my mother said, but I do recall the look on her face—sheer horror. Finally, we were on the same page emotionally again. At least for a moment.
I wasn’t confident in much, but I was certain that my mother would not allow anyone other than herself to harm me in any way. The month that followed that conversation made me more insecure than ever. I had shared with her some of the reasons for my concerns, and yet he was still in the house, in her bed. The two guys at school did not value my body enough to not abuse it, and neither did my Daddy. Now, my mother was sealing the deal.
I later found out that she was in so much shock that she froze up emotionally as well as physically. If there was anyone she thought she needed to protect me from, it definitely wasn’t my stepfather—the man I have known and loved since I could remember, the man I found myself preferring over her since I could remember as well. She didn’t know what to do. All I knew was she needed to do something, and with every passing day, I found my faith in her ability to shield me from his intentions fading more and more.
One day I came home, and he wasn’t there. But the only person who seemed to be relieved about it was me. My mother had lost her husband, and my brother had lost his father. My mother never blamed me for that, but she did interrogate me quite a bit about the details of what had happened. She needed clarity to keep from having a nervous breakdown, but all I saw was a woman who always thought I had a hand in the sexual abuses that were happening to me.
Amazingly, I got through the rest of high school, but it wasn’t easy. I was scared, I was wounded, I was angry. But most of all, I was ready to get out of the house to start a new life. There’s a real danger in trying to move on into your future without redeeming your past. You look up and find yourself recreating it in some form or fashion over and over … and over again.