Black Sheep

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when a black sheep was born into a flock of white sheep, farmers professed that it was the mark of the devil.  In reality, it was a recessive gene that produced the black sheep about 25 percent of the time. The truth behind the mythicism of the “evil sheep” was that wool workers couldn’t dye the dark wool, so it was less desirable for sale. A black sheep was simply an extra mouth to feed, and although common enough, it was a nuisance to the Shepard, and therefore a lie was concocted around the sheep’s worth.

With people it’s not so different. We don’t come into the world with a sign of the devil imprinted on us to mark our difference, but with the passage of time, people love to sort one another out and assign worth. We create our own myths to justify the othering of people. Even still, it’s hard to tell who, in fact, is the more desirable sheep amongst us, even as they are "assigned."

During my childhood, I had heard my mom classify herself as the black sheep of her nuclear family. It was something I became accustomed to hearing about, but never gave much weight to, until I was 12 years old,  and I found out why. Finding out why my mom felt this way happened quite by accident, but the accident would lead to incident, and it would change all our lives...

One unassuming weekend, I picked up the phone to make a call to one of my friends. This was the 90s, when, if you had multiple receivers in the home and if someone else was on the phone, you were suddenly privy to their conversation. My mom was on the phone in what I recognized as an emotional conversation with her elder brother. She wasn’t quite yelling as she said, “Yes —you do remember. You do.” She said his name. I covered the speaker on the phone, listening intently. He tried to overtake her. She stopped him with, “We were in mom’s bedroom and you were on top of me, and you started to undress me…”

A fog went up around me, like a sudden pierce in the cloud of childhood, and the fog became thick, filling in all the gaps, sucking out the air in the room.  Even at 12,  I understood what my mom was explaining. There was something distinct: the level of upset in my mother’s voice. I quietly hung up the phone as the fog began to settle into me where the air had once been. I understood what I heard.

I knew what she meant, and there was a reason why I knew. The same thing had happened to me. I experienced what it was like to have an older sibling direct my own body, sexually. It had happened over several years, and though it had ceased a year or two prior, I had never told anyone. There was a part of me that must’ve known that what was happening to me, and with me, at the hands of my own elder sibling was wrong, but more than wanting to get her in trouble, or even wanting to make it stop, I wanted to her to love me. Silence, therefore, felt like love.

Now, confronted with my mother’s frantic emotion on the phone with her brother, the truth smacked me all at once. It was wrong what happened. Perhaps it was even upsetting. Maybe I didn’t need to keep it in. Maybe an adult should know. The prospect of telling my mom, which was becoming an imposing inevitability, suddenly brought me to tears. I was overwhelmed by the amount of truth I was being confronted with. It would also mark the beginning of a personal and familial reckoning that would take several decades.

There we were, my mom and I….divided in time by 29 years, yet both facing new realities, as two confrontations around childhood sexual abuse unfolded in literal parallel. That day, I told her about my own abuse. I told her about what I heard on the phone, and how the same thing had happened to me. Her voice bought me the ability to come forward. In this regard, her bravery and struggle was worth it. It also kicked off a chapter of my youth that followed me into my adulthood, just as it had for my own mother.

Ultimately, our own fragile, nuclear family could not withstand the strain… my parents could not possibly shoulder the pressure of taking sides for or against their children. It became the catalyst that eventually ended their marriage.

Through all the years of our family being in turmoil over this issue, no one ever said to me (directly) that they didn’t believe me. By contrast, my mother’s mother, as well as other family members, were vocal about the fact that they didn’t believe her, or that she should simply “get over it.” If she thought that she was alienated from the family before, unearthing her truth increased this with disgusting ferocity.

I rarely saw my cousins after that day on the phone when I was 12, and when I did, it was clear that they had been poisoned against us. They looked at me in wide-eyed curiosity, though they weren’t sure why. Whenever we had the experience of being with my uncle, at family reunions or funerals, I could never look at him without thinking in my head, “I know what you did.” Yet my mom and I continued to function in the family culture of shame and silence.

I was always incredulous that he walked around with his head held abnormally high, while my mom struggled with a sense of belonging. That she saw herself as somehow outside of these people was not incorrect, but it was because she was functioning in the light of truth and they were denying it.

Years later, I was unpacking boxes in the dusty attic of one of our former houses, and came across a Xerox box of my mom’s things. In it I found a letter to her older brother, who shares a name with my dad. Initially, I thought the letter was meant for my dad, so I mistook it for a love note. As I began reading it, though,  I realized, it was anything but. It was a letter my mom had written, pleading with her older brother to “please apologize and acknowledge what happened,” so they could be a family again. Even after all that... she just wanted to be a part of her family. To have his love and an apology. It made me so angry to see multiple pages of handwritten desperation and love laid out so clearly. I tucked the letter back into the box, and back in the recesses of my memory and never spoke about it to anyone. I don’t know if it was ever sent.

Whether over the phone, or in written form, I never got that moment of summation with my own sibling. She passed away before we had the chance to confront our childhoods…but who knows if we ever would have. When she died at the age of 27, I wrote a note to her on college ruled notebook paper and folded it into a neat square, like we used to do when we were kids. I carefully placed it in her coffin. It read, “I was only so mad at you because I still loved you.” And I signed it, “Your sister, Billie.” When someone is gone, there is a finality to the story. It has become, for me, a closed account that I no longer have to pay for with my silence.

Movements like "Me Too" have ushered in more conversation around assault, rape, and other sexual violence and misconduct, and I'm happy about that... But I also feel that sexual abuse, especially in families, is still kept undercover, despite the fact that it's being actively experienced by so many people--male and female. The shame and the silence is ingrained in family culture, and in society. There is a ton of fear around talking about these themes even though it's necessary and true. We spend so much time talking about how a stranger can victimize a person, but I have to say, I have never been victimized by a stranger--only by people I knew. And I was forced not only to pay in the moments it happened, but later on with my silence, which costed me far more than the events themselves.

The sum of my personal experience, as well as the experience of watching the way my mom's family treated her, is this:  if you have to pay for a status in any system, including a family, and the currency is silence, the debt will be perpetual, and the suffering endless.

Families tend to have a particular, individual type of economy when it comes to love, but fictitious labels once assigned to denote an economic value to a sheep should never apply to people. If using your voice rather than submitting to silence makes you a family pariah, that's bullshit. Maybe black sheep are really truth warriors... a carefully curated percentage of us, present by genetic design, who call out the shame rather than inhaling it into our ecosystems. That doesn’t mean the truth isn’t scary, or that there won’t be consequences…to quote Brene Brown, "The price is high, but the reward is great."

I will no longer exchange my truth for love. Ever. And if that makes me a black sheep, I willingly accept the title and wear it as a crown. Now, I am a queen.


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