Why does she wrestle guilt and doubt daily? Is she who she says she is? Is she real? Authentic? Can she trust her own opinions and intuition, or would she do well to have someone else make decisions for her? Even small decisions send her into a heart-pounding tailspin—like what outfit to wear to the company party or what kind of take-out she wants on a Friday evening. She has no idea why. This debilitating self-scrutiny encroaches on her soaring career and strains the few relationships she has managed to retain.
With every passing day she becomes more unsure and therefore, more concerned about how to carry on. Maybe she should see a therapist. Maybe her priest. Maybe she truly is going crazy.
Or maybe she is going to hell.
At that thought, her entire body tenses and sweat pours from her forehead. Hell. For years she has pushed that concept as far away as possible, yet it resurfaces at the most inopportune times.
Everything about her personal beliefs has changed over the past two decades. Well, nearly everything. She does believe in God and finds comfort in her spirituality. But hell? She shudders in recollection of her childhood.
She can never completely reign in her thoughts when they go there and today seems worse than ever. She pulls her thunder gray Mini Cooper into the double garage attached to her exclusive country home. She stumbles into the house, throws her coat and briefcase onto the couch in her den and collapses into the soft suede easy chair.
Everything she owns is real. Everything. Leather; hardwood; crystal; silver; suede. She wears only wool, raw silk, cotton or linen. She cannot tolerate imitation. She’s fanatical about authenticity.
Her hand moves back and forth over the armrest. It’s real. Representing a truth of sorts.
Tell the truth, girl. Her shoulders jerk involuntarily. She would recognize that voice on Tiananmen Square at noon. Shame, doubt and fear wash over her in waves.
The five-year-old child had spoken her truth to a preschool teacher that fateful day in December. The memory had never left her, but had been buried under layers of blame, shame, arguments, accusations, continual attempts to please, prayers for healing, sermons about truth and a pathological obsession for perfection.
Old theatrical characters re-emerge out of the dingy backstage of her mind. A flurry of uniformed people, doctors, nurses, teachers, counselors—in schools, hospitals, professional offices and at home. But the most terrifying of all are her mom and dad. Each of them had held one of her shoulders, demanding that she tell the real truth. Not some fairytale they believed she was making up. Just remember: There was absolutely no way he could have done that to her.
She had been tormented. She thought she had told the truth when she spoke with the teacher. She hadn’t a reason not to. Her teacher had said, “You can always tell me anything.” That’s what she had done. She was terribly confused. She cried. She was beaten. She was grilled relentlessly. She was told so frequently that her story was wrong that she began to believe an alternate story. It wasn’t her truth. It was what they demanded truth to be.
Her spoken truth had plummeted her into never-ending anguish, terror, discrimination from those in her own home, and existential doubt about her spirituality. Only, as a child, she had had no idea that this was happening.
Tonight, overcome with reemerging recollections, her body slowly crumples into an unrecognizable heap in her perfect suede chair. Oh, the countless whippings for “not telling the truth.” The hundreds of hands groping her body as men and women tried to “pray her right.” The perpetual stares of other children and their parents. The unrelenting whispers. Now, once again, she almost became that forlorn child she thought she had left behind.
Continued in Behind Each Face*
*Because this story appears in the recently published book, it is subject to restrictions as to where it can be posted in its entirety.
* revised and edited, 2015
© Julia Penner-Zook, Behind Each Face