If you have been reading these excerpts from Chapter One of my memoir, The Sum of My Parts: A Survivor's Story of Dissociative Identity Disorder, you know it emphasizes the healing process and the nature of resilience. However these installments from Chapter One contain some descriptions of violence only for the purposes of illustrating why and how dissociative identity disorder is formed. If you are a survivor of violence or someone sensitive to these scenes, please take care in reading these installments.
The Sum of My Parts
Chapter 1: Installment 5 of 6
One day Doña Graciela came up with a plan. When I went home that evening, I was to look around our house for places to hide when I was scared. She explained that she wanted to know where to find me if she needed to. She asked me to tell her about the places I had found when I came back the next day. When I did, we went over my ideas together and determined which were safe and which were not; for example, I shouldn't go into our garage at night, but she thought the tiny closet in our basement with a half-size door would be hard for my father to get into, so I should go there if I could. She gave me a rosary and taught me how to use it. She said that whenever I got scared, I should take the rosary to one of my hiding places and pray.
This was a great plan for several reasons. First, hiding sometimes kept me out of harm's way. When my father hit or yelled at my mom, I often tried to stop him and then he would hurt me in front of her. And if she then tried to stop him, he made the attack on me more painful. By focusing on hiding, I was less likely to intervene. Second, my coming home from Doña Graciela's house with a rosary pleased Popi, who often led us in prayer to the statues of saints scattered around the house. Third, the rosary beads eased my anxiety. When the sound of Popi's attacks made me fear that he was killing my mother, instead of rushing to stop him I rubbed the beads of the rosary and prayed to Mary: "Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gra¬cia, el Señor es contigo. Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres, y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús. Amén." I said the prayer over and over, and even though I didn't understand its meaning, it calmed me. The louder the screaming, pleading, and moaning from the other room, the faster I prayed. Some forty years later I still pray, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee..." when I get scared-and now I truly understand the meaning of the words.
I took Doña Graciela with me when I returned home each night in other ways as well. I whispered her words, "God loves you, Olguita," into my hand, then closed my fist as if to trap her calm, steady voice and hold her words with me. I often walked with my hands closed in fists. At night I could put my fist up to my ear, slightly open it, and imagine Doña Graciela's voice saying to me, "It's not your fault."
Whatever Doña Graciela told me, I believed. I needed to. I needed to believe I wasn't so alone, vulnerable, or unsafe. I needed to know I was loved and worthy of love. I had been taught that our elders were wise, and here was an elder telling me it wasn't my fault. I tried to make her voice in my head louder than the voice of my father when he raped me and yelled, "You are making me do this! You are evil! You are going to go to hell." I was so worried that he was right. But Doña Graciela was older and wiser than my father, so when she said that God loved me and hated that my father was hurt-ing me, I held on to this truth with all my might.
Things went on this way for a over a year. One day during the summer I turned five, Doña Graciela came to my house to talk to my father. From my position at the top of the stairs, I heard her tell my father that she knew he was hurting my brothers and me. "I can hear you through the walls," she scolded. "You know better. Your role as the man of the house is to protect and provide for your family, not to beat and scare them." She appealed to his faith: "God will forgive you, Alejandro, if you stop and repent for your sins."
I saw my father respond as if in slow motion. He raised his right arm and swung at her hard. In my panic, I felt that familiar splitting-off feeling, left my body, and floated back against the wall and up to the ceiling. He yelled, "This is not your family!" He stepped closer and threatened, "Your family is out of control. No one has any respect. If I continue to hear noises coming from your house, I will come over and quiet everyone down." He struck her again on the side of her head.
She fell back against the door and I saw that she too was afraid of him-not just for what he had done to her, but for what he could do to her granddaughter, and what he might now do to me. He called me to come downstairs, and in front of her said, "Doña Graciela just told me that she no longer wants you to visit." My head filled with the sound of rushing blood. I watched her sad, shocked expression and couldn't hear anything else he said. From the window next to the front door I watched Doña Graciela slowly walk out of my life, holding a hand to her face and clutching the rail along the porch to steady herself.
Before I knew it, my father had me by the arm and was pulling me back up the stairs. My brothers hid under their beds as he dragged me through their room into mine. "What did you tell her? What does she know?" he raged. He ripped off my clothes and hit me across the face. I could feel the rushing of blood in my head again, and then I couldn't hear him anymore. Like the turtle in her shell, I went fur-ther and further inside myself. My head became fuzzy and I went up onto the ceiling, where I watched myself stand shaking and naked in front of him. He punched me over and over, in the stomach and across my ribs. Then he threw me on to my bed and raped me. But I was numb again, and the thought that I wouldn't see Doña Graciela anymore was almost more painful than anything he could do to me.
Look for installment 6 next week.
Find out more about the memoir or Olga's work.