Warning: This post may be very triggering for childhood abuse survivors, and is not suitable for children. It was very uncomfortable to write, and I’m sure it will be equally uncomfortable to read.
A friend and I went to the YMCA to do aqua aerobics. It’s great exercise. The Y limits attendance by appointment only and there are very few people in the building, all of whom wear masks until they enter the pool. We are definitely socially distanced, and they are constantly cleaning all surfaces.
We weren’t attending a class. We have worked out our own routine based on classes we attended pre-pandemic. It’s usually a wonderful experience, and I leave there feeling refreshed, relaxed, and very glad that I had made the effort. But not on this day. Oh, no.
My friend and I were sharing a pool lane, and in the next lane was a boy, about 12 years old, with a man that one assumes was his father, although they looked nothing alike. That is all my friend and I can agree on about the situation. We both were looking at it through our very own lenses, based on past experience and a general trust (or lack thereof) of humanity. My friend never experienced sexual abuse. I did, at right about the same age as this boy. I had a visceral reaction, and to be fair, I’ve seen several father/son swimmers in this pool, and I didn’t have that reaction with any of them.
What my friend saw: A father and son, rough-housing in the pool. Both seemed to be laughing and having a wonderful time. The father was most likely trying to get the kid comfortable with swimming.
What I saw: A pedophile grooming a child. He kept chasing the kid around the shallow end of the pool, growling, with a little plastic shark in his hand. The child was nervously screaming and laughing the whole time. It lasted 45 exhausting minutes. Occasionally, the father would playfully use the shark to bite the son’s thighs. Then he would come up behind the boy, wrap his arms around his torso, and pull him back against his chest, as he rested his chin on the boy’s shoulder. He’d tickle him, and the kid would scream and laugh nervously, and struggle. Once, while pressing the kid against his chest, he lifted up the boy’s legs so that he was almost in the fetal position, with the boy’s feet against the edge of the pool, all while the man growled in his ear. That was the only time the boy was quiet. Sometimes he would throw the kid in the air, and then pull him back toward him.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to punch the guy in the throat. I wanted to call child protective services. I was losing my mind. But did I do anything? No. Because I couldn’t be sure how much of what I was seeing was through the very biased lens of my past.
I kept thinking, “Yeah, great idea, man. Train the kid to think that if he screams, no one will come to help. Train him to get used to this nervous, uncomfortable feeling. Teach him that this is all a game and he’s supposed to think it’s fun. Do this in front of strangers so that he can believe that if other adults are seeing it and doing nothing about it, it must be okay. Make us all complicit. It takes a village to abuse a child. Get him all used to being in the fetal position with you behind him, your head on his shoulder. That’s how it’s done. That’s how it’s always done.”
Maybe, like my mother once told me (to my horror), I was “making too much of it.” Maybe I was imagining things. Maybe it’s my fault for thinking that a lot of people in this world are creepy and don’t have people’s best interests at heart. Maybe I was crazy. After all, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.
I didn’t know what to do. I could intervene and humiliate the child with no concrete proof. I could beat the hell out of the man, further traumatizing the kid and winding up with an arrest record. I could tell the staff, but what could they do about it? I could try really hard to see things the way my friend did, but I was having no luck there.
I cried a little. I swam to the other end of the pool and stayed there as much as possible. But the child’s screams (of delight? of fear?) were echoing off the ceiling. I wanted to rescue that kid. But I didn’t know how. I thought of all the adults (and there were many) who didn’t rescue me. Did they feel similarly conflicted, or were they just incompetent and indifferent? It had never occurred to me before this that they might have been conflicted.
I felt guilty. I felt angry that I was being made to feel guilty. I felt envious of the people around me who didn’t seem to think this was a big deal. I felt victimized all over again. I felt an insane desire to protect my genital area at all costs. No. You have no right to touch me. NO!
Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I probably should have kept this to myself. But I can’t be the only one who goes through this. Thank God it doesn’t happen often. I felt alone at that moment, but I doubt I am. Maybe this will make someone else feel less alone. The bottom line is I hope that I’m wrong and that that child has a loving, decent, protective father who makes him feel safe and that they create a lifetime of happy memories together.
This was definitely not my best swimming experience. Ugh. Excuse me while I go boil myself in bleach.
If you are an adult survivor of sexual abuse, please know that it was not your fault, and visit the RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) website for support and information, or call them 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE.