Malignant Memories

The Marvellas took care of a lot of business in Seattle. For starters, Margie's relatives had planned a big reunion in honor of her mother's 90th birthday, and Margie wasn't up to facing her family alone. So the Marvellas came as her date.

And then there was the foray to Uncle George's farm.
It was also a chance for Vivian to confront certain members of her family, specifically, her brother, Rick, whose former stepdaughter is the other victim their father admitted abusing.

Vivian asked her mother to fly up from California, as well. Vivian says she tried to tell her mother about her own abuse when she was about 14, but her mother was making dinner and kept turning back to her chores. The message she got was: This is stuff we don't talk about. She finally made her mother listen last year.

Her mother refused to be interviewed or photographed for this story.

Vivian brought the video along to ensure there would be no refuge in denial. That's a subject she knows a lot about.

"In my case, my denial was so deep that I denied my own experience. I didn't even want to know in my own mind what happened to me. Now that I look back, I think 'Oh my God, how could I have not saved my (step) niece? How could I have not seen this was happening to her?' "

The rendezvous took place on a Saturday night at a Best Western motel in Kent, Wash. Vivian looked a wreck after being up all that previous night from a red-eye flight and being much too nervous to eat. But the other two Marvellas were in place, posed like guard dogs to defend their friend if need be.

For two hours the Marvellas and Vivian's family listened to this unkempt, white-haired man speak casually, arms crossed, about how his violations years ago were "not life threatening," and how it really wasn't Vivian's fault — it was her mother's for being such a bad wife.

"It didn't take me long to realize I was doing wrong," he said of Vivian's abuse.

"Six years!" Vivian shouted at the screen.

And then Newell asked him about Vivian's step-niece, Rick's former stepdaughter.

"She initiated something I didn't know how to stop," he said, looking rather bewildered. "But it's not all her fault."

The child was only 7 at the time.

When it was finally over, nobody said a word. Vivian's mother sat staring into a soda can, facing away from her daughter. Her brother, looking disgusted, fiddled with his cap.

Vivian turned to him. "Well, what do you think?"

"Oh, hard to say," he sighed. "I dunno. Hard to say."

She asked if he believed his stepdaughter.

"She hasn't told me anything," he said.

"Well, do you have any questions?" she asked him.

"No, not really."

Rick's reaction, or lack thereof, disappointed Vivian but didn't surprise her. This never has been an emotional family.

"We have the strongest emotional armor I can imagine," Vivian said.

Before Rick left, Vivian asked him to come to the police station that Monday morning to talk about pressing charges against their father. Her mother had reluctantly agreed to go. But Rick said he was too busy with work.

"Aren't these people taking this seriously?" Vivian wondered.

She spent the next hour pumping her mother for details. "Where were you? What was he doing when you came home? Did you ever see anything?"

"I really don't remember," her mother kept saying.

In an effort to reach her, Vivian read her an essay she'd written in therapy, describing her first memory of abuse. She wrote it in the third person. Detachment is a technique she learned at an early age, since survival and emotion don't mix:

The man explained that it was time the girl learned what's different about men and girls, did she know the difference? . . .He then takes his white T- shirt off, unbuckles his black belt and takes off his blue-gray pants and his shorts together . . .He goes on to ask if she knows why he looks that way (an erection) . . . He explains that he misses the mother, that's how men show that they're thinking about girls and women. Does she want to touch it? . . .It was horrible — horrible to feel, horrible to see, horrible to be involved in. It wasn't normal and the girl wouldn't feel normal again . . .

When Vivian finished, her mother just looked at her, teary-eyed. She said nothing.

Vivian couldn't get angry. To this day she can't. That frustrates her husband, Rodney.

"I think had (the Marvellas ) not gotten together, this whole process would have destroyed our relationship," he said.

Vivian never told him about the abuse. He found out one day while digging in her purse, looking for a checkbook and coming across the essay.

"She was carrying it around and I read it," he said. "I was pretty enraged. What a disgusting son-of-a bitch he was. It's so disgusting.

"I've gone through periods of rage and thought about revenge and all that sort of thing. I think it's fortunate that I'm 41 instead of 25 because I probably would have acted out this one.

"But she's never ever gotten mad. I think all that is part of that training she had for not showing emotion."

Vivian wishes she could rage about it. Or even just cry, the way Ezzie can. Both she and Margie are envious of her ability to do that. Vivian has only cried once about the abuse. Margie, not even that.

They've tried renting the saddest movies they can think of just for practice. They've tried coaching each other. But for those two, it's been an emotional desert.

The confrontation with Vivian's family lasted six hours. When the door finally shut behind the last to leave, the Marvellas let out a collective sigh.

"Was my real family kidnapped by space aliens?" Vivian wondered. "Or are we stuck in a Fellini film?"

Ezzie, who'd been biting her tongue all night, let it go.

"What IS it with these guys," she said in disgust. "They can't even say I'm sorry this happened to you? My God! I didn't know?

"At one point, I just wanted to get up and shake Rick: 'Listen to your sister!'

"And your mother, the same way."

It's 2 a.m. by now. It's been a long, long night. But before the Marvellas sleep, they follow tradition and reward themselves for their hard work. They climb into swimsuits and T-shirts, and head down the hall to the hot tub, only to discover the door locked. Closing time is 10 p.m., but Ezzie manages to talk the night desk clerk into opening it up for them.

"We've had a really intense evening," she said.

Inside, they slip into the hot, swirling water and turn into noodles. They lean back and lift their toes up out of the water, wiggling them in unison. They laugh as bubbles blow up their T-shirts, turning them into Pillsbury dough women.

They don't indulge long. They have a big day ahead of them tomorrow.