The main authority in my life was the district manager of the state offices, a Burt Reynolds type in looks and attitude. Charles was a Florida native like me and he had the same last name (I’ve given him a different first name for privacy). Some of my co-workers suspected we were related, but he didn’t come from any branch of our family as far as I knew. He’d suddenly developed an intense interest in the Food Stamp office, and he liked staring at me, boldly and lazily. A divorced guy with some interest in a single girl. That seems all right. But you may recall my extreme vulnerability and almost total lack of “social skills” in dealing with predators. And Charles was a predator, the kind you wouldn’t suspect.
Whenever he spoke to me, I felt tongue tied and intimidated and couldn’t think of a thing to say.
But the night of the Christmas party, in the private dining room of a popular restaurant, things changed. I had a great red velvet dress – just the color for Christmas – and a sweater with a rabbit fur collar. As I was getting ready to leave, my friend, Tom (from the bridge), stopped by and insisted on taking a picture of me, so I clowned for the camera.
At the restaurant, when Charles arrived a dozen voices called out to him to “come and sit here!” but he kept looking till he spied me and made a bee-line for the chair beside me.
I was feeling a little out of place. No one from my work unit was there, and drinking and dancing had never been my forte in any event. While Charles chatted casually for a few minutes I had a glass of scotch that I decided I ought to drink so I could stop being so stiff and formal. And then I had another. There was a very nice band playing and Charles wanted to dance. Well, I most definitely did not want to demonstrate my two left feet, so I declined. “Can’t dance,” I said. “Try the lady in the pink dress!”
He did. And he proved to be a dancer like my mother, amazing to watch, and I was quite breathless at the display. When the dance was over, he sent the lady off to her corner and returned to sit by me. So I decided I needed another glass of scotch. The room got a little blurry. “Let’s get out of here,” Charles told my left earring. “Let’s go somewhere we can talk.”
“Where,” says I.
“Why, my place, of course,” says Charles.
I felt like a fifth wheel with all the bopping and bumping going on. Why not go where we could just listen to some quiet music and talk in a civilized way? My normal inhibitions and cautions had disappeared with the third scotch. It might be “fate” that we had the same name, and who knows? It might be destiny. A romance might develop. He might turn out to be The One. I’d never know till we got better acquainted. And, if I decided he was not “on the level” after we talked awhile, I could always put a period to any further advances, right?
I vaguely remember driving ten or more miles, following him as he exceeded the speed limit dangerously. I was most definitely not sober enough to be behind the wheel. But, somehow, we made it to his house.
Charles did all the talking. He lied about how deeply moved he was by my presence, my “mystery,” or some such blather. I was nearly asleep from the effects of the alcohol when he started pawing my dress.
“No! I need to go home!”
“Well, obviously, you wanted it, and you’re going to enjoy it a lot better if you just relax,” he said, “and stop fighting me”. The next thing I remember is waking up, pre-dawn, in this man’s bed in a complete panic to get home.
I slipped into my clothes, ran my fingers through my hair, and knew that I was going to catch it from Mother for being out so late. When Charles woke up, he was not the least bit apologetic.
“You have to forget this ever happened,” he said. “I have too many responsibilities and obligations.” He fixed me with a stern, authoritative eye. “If any word slips out, it will be very unpleasant.”
Okay. I understood. It was a mistake on both sides. He had too much lust built up, and I had too much scotch. We’re adults here. I can handle this.
The term “date rape” hadn’t been invented yet.
I started vomiting in the morning a few weeks later. I just could NOT figure out how it could happen. Just ONCE, for God’s sake! Just one lousy slip, one error in judgment, one encounter! What was I going to do? The problem was so huge that I felt paralyzed just thinking about it. I liked my job, I had a future, and I had screwed up again, and royally!
I argued back and forth with myself. I could have the baby, never say a word about who the father was, and just go on with my life with two children. I could tolerate all the whispers and rumors, I could finish school, pregnant or not, I could work out all the logistical details and everything would be fine.
But I knew I was kidding myself. Having the baby would ruin any chance of finishing school and making a future for myself and my daughter. I needed to act and act fast.
But I wasn’t sure I was thinking clearly. At work I decided to confide in Madge, who had a very good working relationship with Charles. He looked on her as almost a mother. Her son was one of his fishing buddies. I figured that, since she was an “insider” with Charles, she would know best whether I ought to notify Charles before I took this serious step.
“Yes, you ought to notify him,” says Madge. “And he ought to pay the bill!”
“And,” says Madge. “You ought to tell him yourself.”
“That,” says I, “is a most terrifying thought.”
“Charles is not really an ogre even though he acts like one,” Madge told me. “You must not be afraid of the truth.”
It was a terrible ordeal, more painful than I care to remember. I was accused of lying because, of course, how could ONE mistake have such consequences? Surely someone else was responsible and I was just trying to blame it on him for purposes of getting money or advancement. I was simply trying to tell the truth and deal with a difficult situation in an honest and fair way for us both. That he was so contemptuous and dismissive was excruciatingly painful.
I fled his office and went to Sandra and poured out the story to her. She was furious with Charles. Her advice was to have the baby and “stick it to him”. I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to take care of the problem and be assured I could keep my job without harassment and get on with my life.
After my previous experience with the emotional fall-out of such a procedure, I most desperately did not want to do it. It was, in the end, the ONLY choice that was unselfish and truly loving to all concerned. That Charles had only to pay the bill and forget about it was clearly a little unfair, but I wasn’t focused on that issue. I just wanted to get through it.
Madge made the arrangements and drove me to the clinic and brought me home afterward.
A week at home resting and recovering was just what I needed.
Meanwhile, during my absence, my supervisor, John Dear, had a confrontation with Charles and resigned his job and left. Jody was appointed supervisor.
Back on the job, I was overwhelmed with feelings of being dirty, guilty, and definitely persona non grata in Charles’ eyes. Maybe it’s my imagination, maybe not, but it seemed that Jody spent an inordinate amount of time closeted with Charles. Then she marched into my office and delivered an entire list of failings on my part about the way I was doing my job.
Cases were piled on my desk that were claimed to be full of “errors”. I went through each one, finding no errors according to manual procedures, and returned them to Jody with memos explaining my justifications.
“Oh,” says Jody. “Well, I’m just learning this job! Be patient with me!”
And then she delivered another stack of cases with no errors, bogging down my time so that I had to go through every one of them, writing narrative memos, getting more and more behind in my daily caseload taking care of this nonsense.
Of course, when I was behind with my caseload, Jody asked me with a sneer, “Plan to take any appointments today?” As if I were sitting there doing nothing but filing my nails! Never mind that I was struggling like crazy to finish the stack of case reviews she was frivolously piling on my desk almost daily!
I would have had to be blind not to know the deliberate pressure cooked up between Charles and Jody.
Perhaps my resistance was low because of this stress, perhaps it was Fate that intervened, but the next event was another step down into the pit.
As it happened, Easter week that year was accompanied by strange weather. A Southwest wind had been blowing for days and the mosquitoes were suddenly out en masse. Mosquitoes are part of living in Florida. Their cycles and types were well known to me, but this was something new. We even joked about these particular mosquitoes, that they were “kami kaze” suicide bombers. My grandmother said they were “salt marsh” mosquitoes and must have been blown in with the southwesterlies.
Well, one of them must have come from a marsh in Central America because the result of her biting me was that I contracted Dengue Fever. Dengue is also called “Breakbone Fever” because one of the initial symptoms is that all the bones in your body, especially in the back, feel like they are broken. It is accompanied by a high fever, bone rattling chills, a crushing headache, and basically total prostration. My fever went so high it felt like my eyeballs were roasting in my head and I couldn’t bear to open them because the light was too painful. My very skin was in agony at the contact of the bedclothes!
When it was over, my heart was damaged. I certainly did not feel like myself ever again.
I had used up all my sick leave, all my annual leave, and had to go back to work as soon as possible. Of course, that meant the pressure from Jody had to be faced. This intensified daily. At one point, I testily remarked that I really didn’t think it was necessary to keep on finding non-existent errors in my cases since, over and over again, already, she’d been wrong about any errors at all.
“It’s clear to me that you’re being put up to this attack,” I told her.
She smiled sweetly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about! Maybe you need to take some more time off until you can handle your job!”
I was not going to let that woman get to me! Or to let that absurd man with his paranoid ego problems put so much pressure on me that I’d quit my job. By this time, other workers were aware that something was going on, but I kept quiet. Only Sandra and Madge knew the truth. And we all knew that we couldn’t prove anything. Jody had been given her supervisor’s position because she had agreed to “do the deed”. I even think, in retrospect, that the confrontation between Charles and John Dear was manipulated to get him to quit. He’d been my ally and would have never tolerated anyone treating me that way.
Sandra counseled me to just hang on until we could gather enough evidence that Jody was an absolute incompetent. They were watching her and she knew it. Our office staff, known for our outstanding efficiency and high morale under John Dear, had become a snake pit of jealously, rivalry, and back stabbing. And I felt like I had created the situation with my single act of indiscretion.
At this point, the hives kicked in. About midmorning every day, my skin started to itch. My arms, my neck, my face, my thighs, my belly and back; the itching was unbearable. I was clawing myself until I drew blood. Sandra suggested that I see an allergist. He gave me a shot of cortisone and everything was fine for a few days. Then the itching began again. Another appointment with the allergist and another shot of cortisone.
After about half a dozen visits and shots, the doctor told me “You need to see someone else for this problem. I’ve done every test possible and there is nothing physically wrong with you. I cannot, in good conscience, continue to give you these shots. Cortisone is good for emergency relief, but it is not a long-term solution. It has serious side-effects and you have to stop now.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Who do you suggest I see?” I asked with a sinking heart, knowing what was coming.
He wrote a name and number on his prescription pad and handed it to me. A psychologist.
Maybe just knowing that the hives were psychosomatic would help me deal with it. Maybe I could do a little self-hypnosis on myself and that would take care of it. I mean, after all, I could help other people with similar problems, why couldn’t I do it for myself?
Between working, going to school, hypnotherapy work, and dealing with demands at home from Mother and Grandma, spending as much time with the baby as possible, I fell into bed each night exhausted, and dragged myself out of bed each morning to start the same routine over again.
Later that week, Jody came into my office with another of her barely veiled sneering mandates that I “shape up” or she was going to be forced to write a negative evaluation for that period. I kept a private list of all my cases and actions. My caseload was triple that of everyone else’s, competently managed, and done “by the book”. John Dear wrote as much in a letter of reference he gave me some years later when I wanted to return to working:
“During the period [Laura] worked for me she displayed loyalty, integrity and devotion to duty rarely seen in other employees. She has tact and intelligence and she applied these qualities to her work. … She constantly outperformed other workers with consistent high quality results.”
I visited John Dear at his retirement home a few years back. We talked and laughed over the old times, and he chuckled when he told me, “The best day’s work I ever did was when I hired you.”
Jody’s complaints were categorically unfounded and deliberate harassment. But I refused to give up my job.
Mother’s husband, Buck, put pressure on Mother to use our properties to provide money for his “ideas”. Basically, he still wanted to subdivide the Farm and build and sell houses. Sure, it was probably a good money-making idea, but this property had been transferred into Mother’s name so she could take care of it as an inheritance for the grandchildren and so she would always have a place to live. I called on my brother for support, and we persuaded Mother it was not morally proper to take such a step in contravention of Grandpa’s wishes. But we learned that she and Buck had already, on the sly, sold half the undeveloped property in Tampa that was to go to my cousins. It had passed into Grandma’s name, and Mother was supposed to ensure the taxes were paid every year, but she didn’t. Several of these lots were on the verge of being sold for back taxes. Using this “emergency situation” as an excuse, Mother persuaded Grandma that they ought to be sold right away. Grandma, not realizing that she did have other options, signed over the deeds.
So, that property was gone. What about the money Mother and Buck got for selling? I wish I knew.
I raked Mother over the coals.
“No earthly reason the taxes on this property were left unpaid,” I told her.
“Well, we needed new….”
“Do you intend to turn the proceeds over to your brother? For his children’s inheritance the way Grandpa wanted?”
“Well, they hadn’t paid the taxes and they hadn’t taken care of a thing. So they don’t deserve anything,” Mother said.
It was useless to point out that this happened only because she worked so hard to keep it all a secret and exclude them. But I was beginning to see there was something not quite right in the way Mother handled business and affairs of trust. What I saw disturbed me greatly.
Since I brought the spotlight on her from my brother as well, and we threatened to notify my uncle what she had done, Mother’s solution to this intolerable, but accurate, criticism, was to blame everything on Buck. Buck had to go.
Mother was again without a husband, her only support my job and Grandma’s income. This really put her in a situation she disliked, though it is only in retrospect that I can see this. I was perfectly happy to work and pay the bills for the three of us. With Grandma’s pension and savings for extras, we certainly weren’t suffering.
But Mother liked to be in control. I can see now the charge that ignited her next explosion of manipulation, but at the time I sure didn’t see it coming.
Because I was always working, I had a joint bank account with Mother. I put the money in the bank and she could take care of the bills, do the shopping, buy what we needed. What set me off was the income tax return.
When I filed, I discovered to my delight that I had a nice refund coming, to do some maintenance on my car and buy some desperately needed new outfits for the baby and me. I especially had my eye on certain toddler toys a little more expensive than my weekly salary could afford.
Well, the check came, my mother deposited it into the joint account without saying a word to me, and then wrote herself a check for nearly the full amount and spent it on God only knows what. I was so furious at the time that I can’t even remember now. She “owed money” for a long time that she had never mentioned and there was just enough in this check to cover it. It was gone. It was a done deal. There was no getting it back.
I blew up again and told her that if she had owed this money for so long, why hadn’t she told me about it so that I could be putting money aside to take care of it instead of just stealing my tax refund without a word to me?! I closed the joint account and opened one in my name only, denying Mother control of my money.
Again, she was in an intolerable situation and the only person who could be blamed for this one was me. All these shenanigans drew me back to the idea of the psychologist. If he couldn’t talk me through the stress, at least he could refer me for a tranquilizer!
I went to my first appointment. I sat in the waiting room and observed all the many diplomas and certificates arranged on the wall. Among them were several that related to hypnosis, and I realized this was the obvious solution to my problem. A little hypnosis and I would be right as rain. And surely, being so highly educated and accredited an individual, he would be the one who could do the job.
I was ushered into the consulting room by the plain receptionist and when I was finally face to face with the man, he looked at me long and hard.
“Forgive me for staring,” he said, “but I feel like we’ve met before.”
We hadn’t, but as I looked into his intent turquoise eyes, I was overcome with the strangest sensation of déjà vu I have ever experienced. His name was Dr. Richard.
I explained my situation, my problem, my own analysis of it, and my belief that hypnosis, if it could be effectively induced in me, which I doubted, would resolve the problem rather quickly. Surprisingly, he agreed to set up appointments to begin the process of trying to “condition” me to effective hypnosis.
The first few attempts achieved only a mild trance state. I was very relaxed, but fully awake and aware. I began to better understand why hypnosis is really only a question of compliance in giving up the will. After several sessions of pleasant “guided imagery” activities, I began to feel better, but I was still having the problem with the hives.
I just simply did not trust anyone enough to “give up my free will” to them.
I discussed this problem with Dr. Richard, and he agreed it would take time and maybe we should just not worry about the hypnosis sessions at the moment and concentrate on a project that he had been considering since he met me.
Dr. Richard wanted me to work with him on some difficult cases. I was flattered to no end that he thought so highly of my skills and opinions and, even though I was doubtful that my insight could equal his, I was happy to oblige. My consultant status with the doctor soon led to a new shift in our relationship. We had many long philosophical discussions. He was happy to explain complex psychological theories with examples from his cases over the years. He would outline a case and ask for my opinion, delighted that I’d seen the diagnostic clues. “Oh, if only I had met you long ago; if only I weren’t so much older than you! What a team we’d have made!”
Another brilliant older man in my life. Soon my sympathetic feelings and intellectual rapport turned toward affection. But I was cautious, even though I’d become comfortable in his presence and impressed with his skills and benevolence toward his patients. Still, I was sure he’d take good care of me under hypnosis.
And this is where it gets really strange. I’m sorry to even have to write this, but I can’t do otherwise than tell what I remember, even if what I remember sounds a bit crazy.
Apparently I really “went under”. Actually, I thought I had just gone to sleep because I was so overworked and tired, and when I woke up I stretched and yawned and apologized for going to sleep on him! Dr. Richard assured me that I had not gone to sleep, that I was really deeply under. He said he had been able to give me life-changing suggestions. “Everything will be fine from now on,” he said. There was some mysterious implication in these words. I felt a frisson of fear because, while “asleep” I had a very strange dream.
In my dream, he had driven me to a local beach and we were just sitting in the car talking and watching for meteorites. The dream was so real that I could feel the fresh breeze from the Gulf. Suddenly, there was a very bright light flashing across the sky! It was huge and lit up the water below and …the dream had shifted and I was in the back seat of the car. Dr. Richard was zipping his pants and I could tell what had just happened, though I was completely baffled because I could not remember a single thing about how I got in the back seat, how the deed was initiated, or anything at all past that bright flashing meteor across the sky.
For some reason, I didn’t want to tell Dr. Richard about this dream. I realized that I didn’t know very much about him. From our talks I knew he had family in Chicago, and spent a number of years in Central America, where his wife’s family lived. He spoke fluent Spanish and had been educated in England.
But that was about all. I didn’t even know where he lived, precisely.
We walked out to the parking lot together. Dr. Richard waited until I started my car before he got into his own car. That is the last time I ever saw him.
The next time I went to his office, a notice on the door said “Closed due to illness. Patients should contact Dr… until further notice.”
This was extremely puzzling.
Back in my office, I called information to ask for Dr. Richard’s home number. Well, it was not just unlisted. No such number existed. I called the psychologist whose name was posted on the door, but he knew nothing about Dr. Richard at all. He wasn’t even aware that he was the designated one for patients in need to call.
I called the allergist who had referred me to Dr. Richard. The allergist had received a letter announcing the opening of a new psychiatric practice and he had made the referral as a courtesy.
I tried to think of any other approach to find out what had happened, but I came up with no solution to the mystery. But, as things turned out, Dr. Richard’s strange disappearance was forgotten in new developments at home, though it would come back to haunt me not long afterward.
I went home that day to find something very strange going on. Mother was deep in discussion with an old friend. At that time, the developer who had bought up all the salt flats across the road had begun the dredging project that turned the prehistoric marsh into fingers of land that gradually, over the past few years, had become crowded with rows of tract houses, each with its own dock and access to the Gulf. It was a popular way to deal with Florida wetlands then, impelling Buck’s desire to divide and develop the farm in a similar way. I hated it. Every time I drove past those houses, that rape of the land, I was sickened.
But, ten years previously, when the land was being initially developed, a crew of men were there every day with large cranes, bulldozers and other equipment. One day, since we were the only house in the area, they came to ask us for a refill for their water cooler. This man talking to my mother, Larry, had been one of the workers on the land developing crew from Miami. Larry liked the area, so after the job was finished he bought land himself and stayed on.
As a native Floridian, Larry really loved the Farm and often came by to visit through the years, occasionally doing some little job for us when we were in residence there.
Larry seemed quite intelligent and was interesting to talk to, with good stories about geography, history and natural history. But he talked a lot, and very fast. Larry was older than me by ten years. I first met him when I was sixteen, so he seemed to be quite ancient. Now, he was more “my age” since I was grown up. But he was still irritating because of his rapid and assertive speech.
Larry sat at the dining room table in deep conversation with Mother. She looked at me in a hostile way when I said hello, so I went to find the baby, playing under the watchful eye of Grandma. I picked her up and went back to the dining room to sit and visit with Larry. Right away Mother informed me that she was discussing “business,” and it wasn’t mine!
Well! Aside from being extremely rude, I couldn’t imagine what “business” she needed to discuss so privately since, after all, I paid the lion’s share of expenses for all of us. I was embarrassed at her dismissal of me as if I were a snoopy child. But I went into the other room to see if Grandma knew what Mother was up to.
Grandma sighed and said that she had no idea what was going on. Mother had been repeatedly going out during the day for hours, leaving her alone with the baby, and there was just no telling what kind of plans she was making. Neither of us liked it one bit.
As soon as Larry left, I confronted her and demanded answers. Mother’s behavior was actually bizarre. She was bright, cheerful and smiling, gaily and playfully telling me “all our worries will soon be over!” When I pressed for a serious answer, all she would say was “you’ll see!”
Well, I was to see sooner than I expected. Just a couple days later Mother told me we needed to talk. Apparently the situation had shifted and I was now to be included in her confidence. It seems that Mother wanted “us” to go into business.
“What kind of business?”
“Well, you’ll never believe it. A commercial fishing boat!”
Yes, indeed. Mother had become friendly with a woman who owned a fish market, and this woman convinced her that commercial shrimping was a great income producing line of work, adventurous, “distinctive” because women rarely own commercial fishing boats, and she just happened to have one she wanted to sell!
Well, isn’t that amazing! Such a deal.
And where were we going to get the money to invest in this project?
Well, there were property lots left that hadn’t been sold for taxes. And we had to move fast if we wanted to get in on the “ground floor” of this opportunity. We were most definitely going to be rich if we made our move now, and Larry knew all about running commercial boats and would teach us everything we needed to know. All Mother needed from me was agreement that I’d help her in the business.
Well, why not? I had had a ball years before helping Myrna on her boat. What could there be to running a big fishing boat? The idea of independence was definitely appealing, especially considering the present job situation. But was it such a good move to unload perfectly good real estate for speculation in the fishing industry? Mother assured me that, once I discussed it with Larry, I would have all the assurance I needed.
Larry soon convinced me this was a plan that could not fail. Mother assured me that Grandma was in support of the plan, and that she, Mother, would take care of everything. Quitting my job meant giving up funding for school, and I really felt bad about doing that. But I was soon cheered up by thinking of all the money we would soon be making, and I’d be free of Charles and Jody and their manipulations. I thought it was entirely appropriate that my monthly period should start on my last day at work.
Never mind that it was an anomalous period that only lasted two days. That was due to all the excitement.
As good as her word, Mother “handled” everything. She and Grandma went off to Tampa one day to sign papers with a real estate agent to handle the sale. The lots were hot properties, and she soon had a buyer. They went back to Tampa to close the deal. We had the money, and it was time to go to work. What a relief to be free and independent!
I didn’t realize the trap had been set and I was already in the steel jaws. It would be 16 very long years before I would fight my way out of this one.