January 1972

Our first evening in the new house in Karlsruhe. Quite a step up for our family from the apartment in White Village. It’s a duplex, yes, but in the nicest part of the barracks. Four  bedrooms, a living room, dining, room, two bathrooms and a “powder room” downstairs, a designation that always conjures up images of glamourous women in ball gowns, holding their glittery compacts dabbing their noses in a plush pink parlor bedecked with poufy chaises. The reality is a disappointment. These new quarters are a bit of a surprise given my father’s recent performance – weeklong drunks and what I assume has been gross insubordination when he shows up to work. I’ve known he has been very unhappy at work (hard to hide when sharing a miniscule apartment with four other people)…and now this! He’s been named a battalion commander, a big promotion, and here we are, my mother, brother, sister and I, rattling around our as-yet unpacked home (the furniture will arrive tomorrow), and my mother is downstairs taking stock of the household she has been waiting for all these years.

We are left to ourselves, at the ages of 7, 9, and 12, to wander about, pick bedrooms (my brother gets the biggest, my sister gets the next biggest, so there’s really no “picking” for me), and poking about. It’s the first time I won’t be sharing a room with my sister. It’s the first time the whole family won’t be sharing a bathroom. My room is little, but it’s mine.

After a while, tired and hungry – it’s after 8, and although we may have eaten dinner at the old house before we made the trip here, we are cranky and bored and anxious to know what happens next – we sit at the top of the stairs. I’ve got my back to the top stair, when my sister, out of nowhere says, “let’s pretend we’re babysitters and we push Wendy down the stairs.”

And with that, her arm reaches and and pushes. Down I go, my head cracking on the corner of a metal inlay for the door mat, causing a pretty deep laceration I don’t feel but which bleeds profusely.  I’m mostly stunned when my mom comes around the corner at the sound of the thumping, and when she sees me lying there, blood everywhere, all hell breaks loose. I don’t remember much of what follows except getting into the Ford Falcon station wagon with my mother and my brother (I guess we left my sister at home) and driving to the infirmary, where I got stitched up and was told under no circumstances that I was NOT TO TELL DAD WHAT HAD HAPPENED.  And I didn’t. As far as I know, he went to his grave never knowing.

This is probably the part of the story that I should relate that my father had begin molesting her within the last year or so, and that I was aware of it, because it was happening in the room we shared while I was in the room we shared.  My mother denies having any knowledge of this, but she was aware that my father’s punishments of my sister (who was always getting into trouble) were far more harsh than they should have been, and correctly intuited that, had he learned of the stairs incident, who knows what he would have done. 

I have a lot of theories as to why my sister pushed my down the stairs that evening. Because she knew the abuse was likely going to get a lot worse now that she had a room of her own. Because she deeply resented me (and always had) for so many reasons. Because she was already deeply troubled. Because she was trying to impress my brother. Because because because.

What I know for sure is that some part of me knew she was dangerous, and it was later that year that when I heard my mom mentioned Harvard College – the first college whose name I had ever heard, I said, “that’s where I’m going to go to college.” My mom said, “I don’t think women can go there,” so I said, “where do women go?” and she said, “Radcliffe,” and I said, “then I’ll go to Radcliffe.”

I didn’t know then how academically rigorous Harvard and Radcliffe were, and I ended up nowhere near Harvard/Radcliffe material, but recall that moment, sitting in the living room of the house with four bedrooms and a powder room that I was going to college so I could get the hell away from this family that touched people where they shouldn’t be touched and pushed people down stairs.


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