My stepfather came into my life when I was three years old. I had been living alone with my mother in a tiny studio near Brussels, and after they married we moved to a house in the village in Flanders where he lived. He presented as a savior, since Belgian small town folks did not generally look kindly upon single mothers in 1966. He was a devout Catholic, and I overheard him mention he went beyond his Christian duty to fully accept me as his own child. My mother was 20 years younger than him, but as a young child, I only heard that I kind of owed him, because he was such a good person. I did not like his jokes. They were loud and obnoxious, and his laugh sounded fake. I did like that every evening he came to my bed, and made a cross with his thumb on my forehead, as a blessing.
He traveled for work, often months on end, and when my mother trafficked me, half the time, he was not around. When he was home, I was given different cues. I had to pretend to go to bed, leave my clothes on under the covers, and she came to get me after he was asleep.
My stepfather was the mayor of the village, and I heard a lot of praise about him. On the first day of the first grade, the teacher proudly presented me to the entire class as "the daughter of the mayor." It was horribly embarrassing, but I felt some guilty pleasure for being special.
When I was first taken to the network during the first grade, I stood up and told all present that I was going to tell on them. I was going to tell my father - he was the mayor and he was going to make sure that they'd all be punished. I was threatened, graphically, to make sure I would remain silent. And I did, but I believed that if my stepfather would know what my mother did to me, he would save me. I was waiting for an opportunity, that I might not need to tell him, but he would notice something that would lead to him finding out. At times I had come home bruised, but my mother always seemed to get to him first, and she would have given some explanation for my bruises that made sense to him.
When I was ten years old, my mother once left me behind in an empty mansion where I had been trafficked for a night. She never came to pick me up. There was no soap, and no food. I nearly died of starvation. On the fifth day, my mother's car drove up the circular driveway, and then she took me back home.
I headed to the kitchen. There was a pan on the stove with browned melted butter that must have been used as sauce for some meat dish, and a pot with some leftover boiled potatoes. This was my stepfather’s fare. I realized that he had been home during my time away, that he'd had lunch, and that he would most likely be there for dinner.
I smashed a quartered potato in the pan and took a very small bite. The browned butter tasted too strong; too meaty and salty, but the potato abounded with subtle, nurturing flavor. After the half potato meal, all I could eat, I was overcome with acute exhaustion and lay down. I took a long bath and washed my hair. The knots were so tight I wasn't able to smooth them out by the time dinner was ready, at five.
My stepfather’s bald crown was the first thing I saw walking into the dining area. Just before entering his view, I imagined, heart beating, that when he would see me; he'd be shocked and demand to know what had happened to me. But when I sat down, he greeted me as if nothing were amiss, as if I’d been home all week.
My mother went to the kitchen. I anxiously looked at my stepfather, hoping he would notice my weight, my pallor, maybe the knots in my hair. But his eyes avoided me. He got himself some wine and poured it.
“You see?” he asked my six year old brother and me, holding up the glass, “See the rich brown tones in this Burgundy? That’s how you can tell that it’s old.”
“Papa?” I started nervously.
He looked at me with his gaze so devoid of recognition of my state that I doubted myself.
“I haven’t been home,” I stammered.
“Yes, I’ve heard about your fancy exploits,” he joked. “Too busy mingling in the higher circles to give any time to your poor father at home!”
Apparently, my mother had already made something up, and he had swallowed it. Over dinner, I continued to try to make my stepfather aware of what he did not want to know. Even as my despair grew, I was unwilling to accept that he was not the good man he had me and all those other people believe. When he would say that he saw me just as if I was his own daughter, he would even get a tear in his eye. I just couldn't believe it.
When I asked him if he didn't notice anything different about me, the cruelty escalated:
“I can see that you’ve lost weight. Didn’t they give you enough caviar?”
His laugh was fake and hollow. When he got up from the table, my mother was in the kitchen and I jumped up, pleading:
“What do you want now?” he laughed.
I clutched his arm, trying to let him know that it was serious:
“Papa, listen, I didn’t eat; there was no one there.”
My mother entered and eyed us suspiciously. Suddenly it seemed as if she just caught me trying to seduce my stepfather. Her cold stare turned on him. He stiffened and took my hand off his arm, as if he just got caught.
“What stories are you trying to tell me?” he mumbled.
And he joined my mother to help clear the table.
In the past days, I have been craving the subtly nurturing flavor of potatoes, feeling more deeply into the betrayal of the man who was my father, who never touched me inappropriately, who supposedly was never involved in my sex trafficking. His hypocrisy may have kept him away from the overwhelming guilt on the other side of those lies, but the magnitude of his denial was my mother's red carpet to trafficking me.
I was in touch with him throughout the years, until he needed me to affirm that he had no responsibility in "what happened to me as a child." I could not help him with that, and he cut me off. In Belgium, you cannot legally disown your children: you have to leave one of two at minimum one third. After cutting me off, my stepfather changed his will that I should get the smaller of two houses, or one third of his estate, whichever was greater. My brother, who had power of attorney and full access to all accounts, sold the smaller house before my stepfather's death behind his back and gave me half the proceeds. When my stepfather died, at age 96, the accounts had been emptied.
My stepfather lived a long life in the village where he was born. He came from poverty, fought in World War II, and lived the rest of life caught in the unresolved trauma story from his childhood, and from the war. He tried to escape his pain by climbing the societal ladder, and this he did successfully, as mayor and cameraman, amassing a small fortune.
I received more guidance and nurturing from some of my perpetrators than I did from my family. This profound lack of love had me seeking my entire life, and I found the secret when I started to give it away. The prayer of St. Francis always resonated with me for that reason. Here it is:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light,
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.