3 - Chapter Five: An American Life
Songs of My Families: A Thirty-Seven-Year Odyssey from Korea to America and Back
Kelly Fern, Brad Fern, MA, LAMFT
As it is with every life, some events and circumstances in my American life were difficult. There's an old saying, "That which does not kill you will make you stronger." Not long after my first day of school, a neighboring boy started molesting me—and did so repeatedly for six years. Months would go by without him visiting, and I'd think it was over. Then he’d come back into our house and the nightmare would resume.
He was six years older than I was. If I told on him, he threatened, my American parents would send me back to Korea, and then I'd have no family at all. At one point, I tried telling my parents, but they didn't get the message. Children are often inarticulate, especially about abuse. By the time I considered myself a full member of the family, my spirit had been beaten down, and I was unable to stand up for myself. So the abuse continued and became part of my life. I felt I had to endure it even though it was tearing me apart inside.
Sometimes, he would sleep over at our house. He'd enter my room in the middle of the night, and I'd lie there, pretending to sleep, holding my breath and clenching all of the muscles in my body. The touch of his hands made me want to die. They afflicted every part of me. I'd fall unconscious, or would go deep inside myself to some imaginary place far away. When he'd finish I'd come back, and sometimes cry myself to sleep.
Sometimes he'd catch me in the bathroom. He'd force me to lie on the floor with my pants down and my stomach facing upward and bare, and he'd climb on top of me. It was on that bathroom floor that he introduced me to a shame so profound that I wouldn't be able to let it go for decades. I remember looking up at the bathroom ceiling; the neatly folded towels hanging down from the rack; the underside of the vanity cupboard; the spider in the corner clinging to its web between the wall and ceiling, holding perfectly still.
During those years I prayed very hard that I wouldn't be sent to hell. God was so angry at me. I was doing something horrible.
The first few times, I was disgusted that he'd spat on me. I couldn't figure out how the spit ended up on my stomach without coming from his mouth. I didn't understand. I knew we were doing something dirty, but I wasn't about to give up my new family. I had to allow it.
"They won't believe you," he said. "They'll blame you and send you back. And then you'll have nobody."
Something inside me thought he was right. They wouldn't believe me. Why would they? He'd lived his whole life in America. I was a guest in his world.
The pain of the sexual abuse was too much to bear. I'd sometimes weep for hours. It felt like I had no control over my body. It wasn't until my thirteenth year that I finally gathered the strength to stop him. He was almost eighteen by then. I couldn't take it anymore. The guilt and disgust were rotting my soul. The way that it ended was really quite simple.
"Please, please stop," I said. "I can't take it anymore. Please stop."
I begged, almost like I was dying and my last breath was coming out. He didn't say anything. He simply got up and walked out. It was finally over.
But he'd already broken me.
When I'd arrived in the United States, I was a spirited, energetic, and outgoing child. After years of sexual abuse, I was an emotional wreck. I felt guilty for what had happened, as if it was my fault. I became depressed and unable to concentrate on schoolwork or to make simple, logical choices. I was convinced that God hated me.
During my fourteenth year, my brother hid a bottle of whisky in his closet. I found it and drank the whole thing—not to get drunk, but in the hope that it would kill me. Another time, I took two belts, and tied one around a pipe in the basement, and another round my neck. I set a chair underneath the pipe, and was on the verge of hanging myself before I pulled away at the last minute. I couldn't go through with it.
My life at school started to deteriorate. Junior high was painful. Like all children can be at times, the girls were cruel. It wasn't a good time to be different. I can remember the hot feeling in my cheeks when someone would yell out, "Hey, Chink!" I knew they were talking to me. I'd usually turn as if I didn't notice the racial slur.
Once I was in the locker room with about six girls who were singing the popular song, "I’m Turning Japanese" by The Vapors. While one girl sang, she took her index fingers and slanted her eyes till they were almost closed. As she did so, she turned toward me and laughed. I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach with a rock. Why couldn't they let me forget that I was different?
My downward spiral started the day I decided to smoke a cigarette in the girls' bathroom. I was caught and suspended. By that time, I was smoking pot, partying, and lying to my parents about boys. I trusted no one.
My high-school career lasted only a few days before I walked out and never went back. Not long after that, my parents said they were taking me to a dentist's appointment, and we got into the family car. After we'd traveled well beyond the dentist's office, my parents told me they were putting me into a treatment facility. We drove through the farm fields of southern Minnesota to a hospital in Minneapolis. I didn't resist. I thought I should at least give treatment a chance. My life wasn't exactly perfect.
I lasted a couple of weeks in the hospital program. Then I was transferred to a long-term facility, where I lived for six months. At first, I felt isolated, until I started getting to know the other residents. I became close to one girl about my age, Dawn, and we remained friends long after our treatment experiences were over. She was shy and came from a poor family, and was truly chemically dependent, as were most of the other girls in the facility. One girl had been sold for sex to grown men by her mother; others had been beaten; and several had been sexually abused. Almost all had come from dysfunctional families, and had used alcohol or drugs to deal with their wounds. I used rebellion to deal with mine.
The program relied on group and individual talk therapy. The staff ate with us and played card games and pool with us. They were more like camp counselors than treatment staff.
During an individual session, I confided to one of the counselors that I'd been sexually abused. The counselor figured that a confrontation with the perpetrator would help me, so we called the family and asked them to come in for a meeting. The abuser was about twenty-two years old by then. I don't think he'd imagined that I would tell the truth, and I remember his face when I did. One moment he was grinning, the next his smile collapsed and he stood up and ran out of the room. His mother sat as still as a statue. I think she was in shock—perhaps torn between loyalty for her son and revulsion for what he'd done. The father's reaction was more overt. I can't remember exactly, but I think he called his son a bastard.
After they left, the counselors helped me to process what had happened as best they could. Years of sexual abuse, however, are not cured in months of treatment for chemical dependency. I still had a lot of healing ahead of me.
When I returned from the facility, my parents tried to impose very strict rules on me. Looking back, the restrictions were probably reasonable under the circumstances, but at the time they felt too harsh. My parents told me I could leave their house if I didn't comply. I filled a box with my clothes and bought a bus ticket to Minneapolis. I'm not sure what Hysugi and Hyogi thought about what was going on. It's all a cloudy picture in my mind now. I think they were frightened, but they didn't say anything. My brother was living somewhere else by then.
It was just before my seventeenth birthday. The bus dropped me off in St. Paul, and a girlfriend whom I'd met in treatment took me in temporarily. Another friend, Chris, was a year older than I was and living in Minneapolis. I'd met him at the treatment center, too. He'd got out months before I did. When I told him on the phone that I had left home, he offered me a place to stay. Within weeks, I was living with him in Minneapolis.
At the time, I thought Chris was my way out of a family system that didn't work for me. I thought that he wanted to help me. I now think of my relationship with him as a profound mistake. He took advantage of me when I was vulnerable. He seemed so gentle and sweet, but he soon tired of me, especially after I'd had our baby. I was disoriented and naïve; I had no idea what a healthy relationship was; I didn't think I had the right to be respected.
Eventually, I spent one long, agonizing night at the hospital, holding my dear little baby, knowing that I was going to give her up the next morning. I knew I had to give her up because it was best for her. But one of the nurses must have made a mistake by bringing her back to me in the birthing room. I wasn't supposed to see her at all. Then I wouldn't have fallen in love. After two weeks without her, I couldn't stand it. I called the social worker and told her that I'd changed my mind.
My baby hadn't been placed with a family yet, so I was allowed visits with her until I decided for sure to take her home. My heart broke every time I saw her little face, and my love for her only grew stronger with each visit. Chris agreed to visit the baby once or twice, but it was obvious that he didn't want to be a father. So I made the decision on my own. Come hell or high water, I was going to keep my baby. Since Chris wasn't interested, everything was left to me. I felt overwhelmed.
Finally, the day arrived. I went to the foster home and loaded my daughter into a car to drive her to my apartment. I was so happy. I got to lay with her and cuddle with her. I fed her. I held her and read to her. I showed her shapes and colors, and pushed her in a stroller for miles and miles, stopping to feed her and change her diapers.
Chris was hardly ever home, so I was basically living on my own. I knew immediately I'd made the wrong choice. I had no job, and was on welfare and barely scraping by. I didn't know how to be a mother, and there was no one to help me. I didn't even have a phone to call if I needed help.
I tried to avoid the apartment as much as I could. I felt so lonely and isolated. Most of my friends had abandoned me. Many of them had pressured me to abort the pregnancy, and for some strange reason they were angry that I didn't.
Most of the time, I sang to my little angel. I didn't know what else to do but sing. I often sang a popular American lullaby:
Rock a bye baby in the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all.
I felt worthless and helpless. I was breaking apart and reality was crashing in. I knew that singing lullabies wasn't a substitute for good parenting.
I could see my child was starting to suffer. I'd had her for six months, and she wasn't eating enough. She rarely smiled. By then, I was spending a lot of time crying.
Finally, just as I'd been given up for adoption, I gave up my precious little flower for good. As in 1971, I found myself at the door of Lutheran Social Services, only this time, fourteen years later, on the other side of the equation. The paperwork was simple. The social worker explained in detail that I wouldn't have any rights to the baby once I signed. I signed and walked away. I have absolutely no memory of saying goodbye to my daughter that day. I don't remember how I dressed her. I don't recall the bus ride there, nor do I remember kissing her one last time. I don't even remember crying. My mind has been benevolent enough to banish those agonizing images from my memory.
Later, I wrote a letter to my baby's new parents, telling how hard it had been to give her up. The social worker made me rewrite it. "You have to make it cheerier," she said. I had named my baby Melissa. Her new parents changed her name to Suzanne. They sent me pictures for years after they adopted her. The photographs were sent through the adoption agency, so I couldn't know where they lived. I have pictures of her until she was five or six.
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