Today I read Until Today by Pam Fluttert.
Kat has a lot of problems. She has an older brother who’s the apple of her mother’s eye, and a little sister who’s daddy’s princess. Her best friend Steph has been getting awfully obsessed with a boy who’s nothing but bad news, and her other best friend Scott has been acting a little weird. And there’s a scared little girl at the hospital Kat volunteers at who won’t talk to any of the adults–but she’ll talk to Kat. It’s a good thing that Kat has her diary to work out her problems in, especially her biggest problem–her father’s best friend, Greg. He says she’s his special girl, that no one would understand their relationship if they knew, that everyone will hate her if she tells…Her diary is the only safe place Kat can share her feelings. Until today, when her diary goes missing…
This is one of the books that I got at the OLA Super Conference this year. It’s a powerful look at the experience of child sexual abuse, especially coming from an author who freely admits that she also has had personal experience with mental and sexual abuse. Fluttert’s website talks about her work on the issue of childhood sexual abuse and with the group Yes YOUth Can which promotes inspirational youth.
Kat is basically a list of the warning signs of childhood abuse: loose, baggy, unappealing clothing, disinterest in dating, mood swings and moodiness, trying to protect another potential victim without anyone realizing what she’s doing, vague statements about her abuser, fanatically protecting the secret even though she hates him and what he does, depression and self-loathing, fear of stigma of being known as an abuse survivor, problems with family & friends…A lot of these are common to teenagers, but they can also be warning signs of something seriously wrong. Greg is also a warning sign himself: he is charming and smooth, someone who everyone likes and trusts, and manipulates Kat from a young age into believing that what they do together is a special secret, a game, something that they do because he loves her and wants her to prove how much she loves him, that no one else will understand and everyone will hate her and she will lose all her family and friends if she tells because they will pick him over her… The whole book is a little After School Special, but it works very well as an explanation of what Kat goes through and what she thinks about everything.
My only issue with the book is that she never once uses the words rape or sexual assault. Words are powerful, as we see when Kat recognizes that she has been a victim of child abuse. Throughout the book, Kat says that Greg “does things to her” and that he “touches her” but she never once says that he rapes her or that he sexually assaults her or that they have sex. I don’t think that Kat yet recognizes that that was what he did–a real survivor at that point might not think in those terms–but I think it would have been even more powerful for the book to use the words. It is a YA book– I wonder if that was a choice made to make the book more ‘appropriate’ to market to young teens? Regardless, Kat is a character who find the courage to help someone else, which helps her find the courage to help herself.
Inside, no one is manning the counter so Mom and I wait. The entrance is pretty much what I expected. The walls are cold and white, and the floor is a dull grey with black scuff marks and smudges. A poster hanging to my right promotes Neighborhood Watch programs and another one advertises an upcoming charity auction to raise money for the homeless. I half expect to see WANTED posters, but aside from pictures of missing children, there are none.
Stacks of pamphlets sit on the counter for people to read. I bend over to pick up one that’s fallen to the floor. I reach to return it to the pile, when the bright red words across the top catch my attention. “What Should You Do If You Suspect Child Abuse?” A little girl holding a teddy bear and sucking her thumb is pictured on the front.
I freeze, staring at the words, as they register and repeat in my head. Child abuse…child abuse…child abuse. I’m an abused child. Putting a label to me–to something that happened to me–makes it seem so real. I’m a statistic. I’m one of them…one of those numbers mentioned in a pamphlet that someone dropped on the floor not caring enough to pick it up let alone take it home.
“Can I help you?”
I come to attention with a start. Across the counter from me is a pair of impatient brown eyes, set in the face of a young officer who seems busy and about to rush off again. Fiddling with the pamphlet in my hand, I’m unable to make my brain connect to my mouth. Say something, Kat. Don’t just stare at him. Do you want to be a victim all your life?
“You okay?” the officer asks, narrowing his eyes and probably wondering what kind of drugs I’m on.
“I…I need to…” I stammer.
“We need to talk to someone.” My mom steps in just as another officer walks into the room. I immediately recognize him as the man who pulled Dad and Greg apart at our house.
“It’s all right, Chambers, I’ve got this,” he says, and the brown-eyed officer rushes away, a pile of papers under his arm and a look of relief on his face.
“Your name’s Kat, isn’t it?” The officer waits for me to find my tongue.
I nod stupidly.
“Are you here to add something to your statement?” He glances at Mom.
Mom grips my shoulders with reassuring hands. “Yes, we need to talk to you.” She glances around. “If we could go somewhere private–”
“Maria! Don’t say a word. I’ll handle this.” My father comes out through a door to the side. He doesn’t look much better than he did when he was taken away, except that the blood had stopped flowing from his nose. His right eye is swollen, he has a fat lip, and a rainbow of blues, purples and blacks colors his face.
Mom answers quietly. “She’s at home with Steph and Scott. Kat thought maybe she’d like to come and talk to somebody.” Mom squeezes my hand, trying to send me a message. I hesitate, uncertain if she is encouraging me to proceed or to listen to Dad. I’m so used to her being a buffer between us that I’m not sure what she is trying to tell me.
“Kat doesn’t need to talk to anybody, I’ll handle everything.”
They’re talking about me as if I’m not even here, just like Dad has always done. Talking about me and making all my decisions for me, without even stopping to wonder what I want and think. Years of hearing Dad saying “Kat needs this…” or “Kat doesn’t want that…” or “Kat is going to do this…” or, worst of all, “Kat will try better next time…”