Please note this is a reworking of an autobiographical piece I wrote last year. Names have been changed...you know the routine...
A New Name...
by Andrea Lena DiMaggio
...The battle that was never waged for the sake of the war that still goes on...
New Jersey...Circa 1960
“Tony…leave her alone. Stop picking on her.” Mommy snapped at Daddy. Marie was already in tears over some unknown slight against my father. Tony Jr. was probably at Dean’s hanging out. And Vinnie was off playing in the bedroom. I sat there speechless watching the same old scene unfold. The music was already in a minor key, and the instruments had changed from horns to strings and an oboe; heralding a horror fest of usual proportion.
“Ah…come on…I wasn’t sayin’ anything. She just has to stop (fill in the offense) in (school, home, everywhere else).”
“I didn’t…” Marie hardly got past the first two words before my father would push away from the table angrily. My mother speculated years later that my father had grown to hate Marie because the older she got, the more she resembled his mother, who had abused him as a child.
“Tony…stop!” My mother shouted. She pulled Marie close to her and Marie cowered almost beneath her arms. My father picked up a steak knife and stepped towards them. I stepped between them and shook. Marie must have been eleven, which made me nine. We had a protocol of sorts, which all of us followed for the most part. Tony Jr. had grown to be almost uncaring, but not unfeeling; hurt enough so that he couldn't care anymore. He kept to himself and hung with his friends, being sixteen and fairly independent, and feeling powerless to influence for the good at home. He joined the Air Force right out of High School.
Vinnie, a smart kid already at five, usually stayed away from the fray. He learned early on that crying only provokes more beating, so he didn’t cry…ever. He still doesn’t cry to this day.
Marie and I were the iconoclasts; we raised our little fists daily at the tyranny that Daddy had imposed, but since we were the most vocal, our punishment was the harshest. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of crying most of the time, reserving those painful expressions for the severest of beatings. I, on the other hand, would burst into tears at the sight of him putting his hand to his belt, which evoked a phrase all too often heard by us and maybe by some of you,
“You want to cry? I’ll give you something to cry about,” as if the first seventy-five beatings weren’t enough to provide him with sufficient reason to hit us hard enough to raise welts.
Marie was a survivor; she lasted nearly fifty-five years on sheer will power mixed with the overwhelming grace of God. Rape, molestation, beatings, humiliation; you name it; she beat it. And there I stood, trying to protect her and my mother.
* * * * *
Standing up for what’s fair and right and just and good about my gender identity…
Oh...yeah...that's right...it never happened.
Sparta, New Jersey, 2011
“Tell me, Drea…what would have happened to you if you told your Dad? I can’t imagine. You know what it was like back then? I’m about the same age as you.” She glanced down at herself quickly before continuing.
“My family was….we were pretty much okay…fairly well adjusted as kids, you know? And even I wonder how my mother would act or talk if I had come to them when I was fifteen and said, ‘Mom, I think I’m really a girl,’ you know.” She leaned closer in sympathy and sighed.
“Did you really have a choice back then? This was what…after all the other stuff? This came after the sexual abuse, right?” She shook her head; even with a brief description of what had been inflicted upon me and my sister, with very little of the ‘narrative’ omitted, she found it so painful for me. It was good to have an ally, even if she was there at the end of the battle, you know.
“So you feel guilty for neglecting Andrea…that’s right? Andrea?” We had only talked briefly about the name.
“Yes,” I tried not to cry. The past was always hanging around within striking distance, so to speak, and it was hovering just next to me on the couch.
“I’m named after him….my uncle. I hate my name. I always have and I never knew why until…”
“Until you started having memories?”
“Yes.” I bit my lip.
“No…feel the emotion…don’t feel bad about feeling…welcome…?” Her voice trailed off in question.
“Sadness,” I said, demonstrating as well as speaking the word.
“Feel the sadness…Welcome it. Put it in a place of safety and look at it, okay? What is it trying to say to you? What word comes to mind?”
After a few moments, I lifted my head off the back of the couch and began to weep.
“Regret…and guilt.” She shook her head in disbelief, not over the verity of the moment, but the depth of the pain.
“She….” I stumbled over the pronoun even as my heart was feeling like it bore a huge weight. I sobbed.
“She…she never got to live because….I was too afraid…I never….”
“And if you had? After all that, what would your father have done?”
I put my head back, searching for the right word to condemn my inaction on behalf of my guilt. I couldn’t…It was excruciating to learn that I had no choice. Shame over the neglect of my best friend after my sister and my wife….my self. Andrea… neglected for decades over the guilt of being unable to stand up to my father and stand up to my fucking uncle.
“Do you think? Would it be possible? Perhaps changing your name…maybe not legally, and of course not necessarily changing it to Andrea…at least not openly for now…” She emphasized the words ‘for now.’
“Andrew…” She put her head down; as empathetic as any counselor I have ever had, she shook her head and raised it. (If it were ethical and therapeutic, I do believe she would have cried along with me.)
“It must feel so painful…that your own name is a reminder of what you went through? What he did to you?”
“I feel so dirty when I think of my own name.” I tried so hard not to sob, but it was no use and I broke down once again, but quickly regained some focus and control.
“Maybe telling people about your new name might help you gain some strength? Regain some of the control you lost?” I shrugged my shoulders as if it were necessary right then and there to decide. She tilted her head.
“No….just a thought…something to think about. How are you right now?”
“I feel relieved…”
“Like a weight has been lifted?”
“Yes.” I was almost apologetic, like somehow it was wrong to be unburdened.
“I’m glad we’re working together. It’s a privilege for me to be able to help you. Will you be okay? Do you need time to contain?”
I wasn’t lying, but it probably wasn’t exactly true, either. And she knew that anyway. And we both knew that while I wasn’t quite okay right then and there… I would be…
Epilogue - 2012
Like many of us, I suppose, I felt a marginally satisfying relief when I learned about the Sandusky sentencing. So many of us have never been vindicated other than in a face-to-face therapy session, or perhaps even not at all. Our victimizers have passed on before we had the chance or the time to confront what they did. My abusers are deceased, and all of my process is with my opportunity to face the pain and sadness and recover through therapy. My sister had the same opportunity before she died.
But to know that the young men who were abused gain some measure of justice gave me a small sense of satisfaction; as if somehow their vindication became my vindication as well. Having said that, life remains a struggle. What makes that struggle bearable and even productive is that I have a faith that is unshakeable; what a friend typified as being 'tenacious as a pit-bull on a mailman's leg.'
And something I recalled today and mentioned to a friend as well; the scene in Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo laments that he wished the ring had never come to him; that things had been different. Gandalf's reply:
So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.As I said to my friend, for me is that it's really all about how we respond to what we face; what we do with the time we have. What type of character is developed in usthrough the things we face and the choices we make; that life can't be lived for what we don't have or can't do, but rather for what we choose to do with what we've been given.