Content warning: This piece discusses parent-child sexual abuse, coercion, and addiction.
Nobody likes getting a colonoscopy. It’s not just the procedure, but the “prep” of taking a laxative and knowing your bathroom needs to be within easy reach for the next thirty-six hours or so.
But what I call “Dad’s Playbook” — his instructions for life and especially how to be a woman — raised the tension much higher as my age seventy colonoscopy came into play.
My father arrived in America on April 30, 1948, at age twenty-three. He’d already been an immigrant once before, when his well-to-do German Jewish parents moved him from Hamburg, Germany, when Hitler became Chancellor. They placed him and his brother first with a nanny in Cornwall for about a year to polish their English, which had been a second language in their home. The brothers needed to rid themselves of an accent in order to survive their education at a British boarding school. After I watched TV programs showing the hazing and torture given out at many such schools, I asked Dad several times whether he had been beaten there (picturing, from television shows, the little German Jewish boy cornered among the upper-class British ones); he denied it, saying that his older brother did the fighting for the two of them.
But Dad, it turned out, was a classic unreliable narrator. As far as I can figure out now, he said what was emotionally safest for himself, then adapted to fill the role described. He claimed to have a pair of college degrees, for instance. Years after his death, I discovered he’d failed out of high school.
So in America, despite the absence of an actual certificate of higher education, Dad presented himself as a highly educated man, an elegant European connoisseur of arts and classical music, as well as a credentialed engineer on his way to management. His British accent and pipe added allure for women his age, and also mine.
Dad’s bookshelves and magazine collections reflected his concept of a sophisticated man of the world, ranging from the latest politics and anthropology to the new sociology of sex. When I was almost ten, he challenged me to develop a “catalog” — in reality, a metal box of file cards — listing all of his books. One section had “adult content.” I had permission to read them if I “really wanted to.” Meanwhile, he gave me mass-market illustrated publications to take to bed with me, creating a link between us: we two, unlike my mother (who’d never read such challenging books), could explore sensuality.
The magazines Dad shared with me at that age and onward were “men’s magazines” like Playboy and Esquire (“I read them for the articles,” men would say with a wink). They explained in both fiction and nonfiction what women did when partnering with sophisticated, intelligent men: not only eager consensual sex at any moment and in any location, but also sex that took place in any location of a woman’s body. The women in the magazines were turned on by submitting to penetration in different ways — including using objects or animals — and the men desired them for their willingness, adventurousness, and passion.
Coming of age during the Sexual Revolution, I accepted Dad’s publications as authorities and how-to manuals for my adult life. For me, that began shortly before my seventeenth birthday, when I boarded an airplane to begin college. My mother gave me a “note to the doctor” to take to the health center, giving parental permission for birth control pills — “when you’re ready.” My father assured me there was nothing wrong with abundant sex, “as long as you don’t get pregnant or catch a disease.” And, laughing, he advised me that “if rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.”
I don’t know how many other young women of the time were given similar risky advice by their parents. Still, I used to think I was the only one. Now, I realize there’s hardly anything unique in people’s experiences … and I’m guessing there are plenty of others, including those who joined communes in the 1970s, who worked from a Playbook like the one Dad provided through his teaching, sharing, and examples. When I was nineteen, he developed a sexual relationship with my college roommate. Later, he “bedded” my best friend in Vermont.
For some years, I blunted the effects of this upbringing with Dad’s own smoothing substance: alcohol, preferably neat Scotch. When in 1990 I walked determinedly away from that usage and embraced the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, I began to face how many choices I’d made on the basis of my father’s instructions. Until then, high risks and embarrassment while naked or cornered had been routine. Because such situations were considered normal within the substance-abusing social groups, I didn’t realize there were other choices until I began to learn the new-to-me patterns of a sober life.
Not long after that, I got back into a pattern of regular dental checkups. With the hygienist’s fingers on and under my tongue, and an insistence on an open and accepting mouth for almost an hour, I asked one time, “Is this hard for women who’ve been sexually abused?” I have no memory of being physically forced to take something into my mouth (other than tongue depressors, which I only recently learned are a problem for many others), but I had followed Dad’s long-term tutoring, and had ignored my own unwillingness on many occasions, including repressing a gag reflex and sometimes choking.
The hygienist nodded. “It can be.” She wasn’t interested in saying more — she focused on plaque around my molars. I squelched an urge to spit her fingers out.
Since then, when I’ve sat in a dental chair I’ve been swept by compassion for other sexual abuse victims who need to get their teeth cleaned or cavities repaired. Fingers in my mouth remain a trigger for vivid and humiliating memories for me, and I identify viscerally with those who’ve repeatedly opened their bodies to insertions that hurt and damage even further. When I was about twelve, my dentist regularly used a “dental dam,” a latex contraption that fastened at the back of the patient’s mouth to prevent bits of tooth or filling from dropping into the throat — but all on its own, the rubber odor and contact with my tongue triggered a gag reflex for me. Dentists I visited later used an assistant with a suction device instead, to vacuum up bits and scraps when they drilled, a better process for me to handle. If a dentist offered a dental dam now, cavity or not, I’d get up and leave the room.
Even as I enter my seventies, in a time when sexuality is brought into conversation more often than when I was twenty, I’ve found it’s more acceptable to talk about oral sex than about penetrations of other non-genital parts of the body. There were years when I almost never said no to anything as long as the partnering was consensual and mostly pleasant. Later, struggling with diagnoses around my intestines and anus, I believed some significant disorders of my body resulted from those forms of “play.” They’re directly connected to what my doctors now want explored during the colonoscopy.
I can’t look at a container of Vaseline without seeing the glans-shaped impression I noted in the jar that one partner kept beside the bed. I recall saying aloud, during painful anal penetration, “This proves I really love you, doesn’t it?” Whether or not the man heard my words, he never answered. He must not have read the articles or learned the obligatory next lines in Dad’s stories, which often included conversation like “Yes, and now you’ll submit to this every time I want it, won’t you? Doesn’t my insistence, my pushing into you, make you wet? Tell me you want more.”
My primary care physician insisted on this year’s colonoscopy. His threat to otherwise not treat the related issues infuriated me. Leaning on advice from a counselor, the one who’d told me firmly that Dad’s literary seduction (I wasn’t even ten years old!) qualified today as sexual abuse — even though he’d penetrated the bodies of my best friends, not mine — I sought out a specialist at a well-known medical center. “This would be my second colonoscopy and probably my last,” I told him. I detailed the infections I’d had, ones that my primary doctor minimized. The specialist listened intently and explained quietly; he kept his hands to himself and shared his notes, which reflected exactly what I’d said. At last, the specialist and I made an agreement to get this done, because he too was concerned. I spent a year in sometimes agitated discussions with his team before deciding I’d follow through.
But the term “submit” is on the tip of my tongue: that I’d “submit to the procedure.” And it upsets me. In the week before the appointment, knowing I’d be drugged and lying nearly naked under hospital lights as someone penetrated my body with medical objects, my stomach clenched with each view of the calendar. I could easily lose my temper over small things that week, or make mistakes in work. I had to keep reminding myself of my reasoning: This is health care, I decided, and it may extend my life. (My late and much-loved husband DK died of colon cancer. Not pretty.) Most importantly: I chose for myself a medical center where I’ve been impressed with the care and professionalism. I planned every minute of that procedure’s date, reassuring myself that after I woke from the “active anesthesia” (so I could cooperate, but not remember details), there’d be a friend at my side. We would ride back to my own secure, safe, and private little home. Agency, not submission. Choice, not following Dad’s Playbook.
The only people who knew the shadow conversations, the presence of those stories from my father’s years of instruction, have been me and my counselor. The flinching and gagging? I try to keep them out of my doctor’s office and the dentist’s chair. In the shower each evening, naked and vulnerable, I sing familiar, “safe” songs to keep from replaying parts of those early magazine stories. I can’t forget them, but I’m learning to look away.
Just don’t ask me what it took to schedule my dental appointment.
Beth, thank you for sharing so openly. Many things here resonate for me, and I am grateful to know I am not alone. Sending warmth your way, and hopes for a gentle, kind path through all of these struggles.
And also to you, Catherine — thanks for making the journey kinder. We walk together, even though at a distance.
I’ve been touched by several people who shared their related experiences after the article posted. I wanted to give some comfort in return, so I wrote this poem for them:
We grew toward the sun
hungry for warmth, thirsty
we needed room to grow
A browsing beast arrived
feet heavy, teeth strong
chewed us down
we with our small
—we almost died—
We grew new leaves
each arm tender
the fine hairs quivering
[would the beast]
it turned aside
We dared to bud
One day we discovered
safe enough: to try!
We lifted our heads
part of a wild field
dreaming of honeyed wine
our scent rose like
joy like fluff in soft wind
we knew our many wishes