Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” When I picked up Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel, which celebrates the perverse sexual obsession of Humbert Humbert with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, to get some literary inspiration a few months ago, it brought back memories of a dark facet of my life: my own history of sexual abuse by my father.
I was 12 when my father first touched me inappropriately. It took me reading about Lolita, more than a decade later, inciting and luring her stepfather into intimacy to realise that my first experience of any form of sexual pleasure came from my own father.
At first, when I did not understand the gravity of it all; the attention made me feel that I was the “most loved” amongst all my siblings. It began with him doing me little favours – siding by me in a fight, buying me treats, taking me out. Slowly, kisses on the mouth became common. And when I’d dive to hug him after he returned from work, he would not let go, pressing his body against mine. Over the days, I noticed something hard rubbing against me. I was too little to realise it was an erection.
On a trip that only the two of us took that same year, we shared a bed. And that’s when he reached out for my developing breasts. I didn’t know this was sexual abuse then, but I knew something was amiss. And from that day onward, every time my father crept up beside me on a bed, I’d pretend to be asleep.
The attention that I initially enjoyed made me feel queasy now. His behaviour did not change, only I had grown to understand from my friends’ revelations about their back-alley romances with boys, that what my father was doing was inappropriate coming from him. I did not want to stay around him anymore. By the time I was 14, I began resisting – I’d wriggle out of his suffocating embrace and run to the other room.
Like any lover denied sex or Humbert denied a touch or peck, my father would respond to me opposing his advances by shaming me in front of my neighbours. On more than one occasion, he told them that I was a whore and was on the phone speaking to boys late into the night, selling myself. He’d shame me for whatever clothes I wore, probably just saving me for himself.
Agonised, I gathered courage and told my mother all about the kissing and fondling, knowing that this was the only way to stop him. But the little faith I had, dissolved when she turned to me and told me to stay away, not once but every time I cried and complained. “He’s drunk, he does not know what he is doing,” was always her excuse. “He sometimes loses control, let it be, it’ll stop.”
It never did.
At first, when I did not understand the gravity of it all; the attention made me feel that I was the “most loved” amongst all my siblings.
I remember working in the kitchen one evening, when he leaned behind me, sniffed my behind and kissed it. Helpless, I began sobbing but even my tears were not enough to deter him. Nor was my rage. One day, when I caught him watching me while I was bathing, I threatened to tell everyone, go to the police. That did not scare my father, instead he flew into a fit of fury – he tried to strangle me, hit me with whatever he could find.
My mother was at work that day. When I got a chance, I called her and told him how violated I felt. She came home with my uncle and my grandmother and it seemed like she was ready to take us away from him. But eventually it all subsided and the separation never came. What stayed was a sense of betrayal. The relatives who got a hint of what was unfolding, were convinced by my mother that I was imagining things. I had no one to turn to now.
In the six years that the abuse lasted, I was forced to endure the pain, the humiliation in silence.
While Humbert found a teen lover in Lolita, I was haunted by the question of what prompted my father to fondle by breasts and leave hickies on my body. Did I lead him to it? How could I? But after years of self-hate, conversations with some of my closest friends helped me come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t at fault. I was after all a 12-year-old girl with a growing sexuality unable to distinguish appropriate touch from inappropriate, with no knowledge of sex, and a Humbert father.
I dealt with him, the way Lolita did with hers. The fictional daughter fled to set the climax of the book, and in real life, so did I, by moving to Bombay when I was 20.
I got away from that house but there was no running away from the agony that my own family had damaged me. That I was denied compassion, acceptance, love from the closest of my people. That I was denied my own truth.
Once I was away, I started reading psychotherapist John Bradshaw’s theory that victims of sexual abuse either shut their sexuality completely or use it to get love and intimacy in abusive relationships. Given that my only experience of masculine “love” came from my father, I became the latter. I began giving myself in to behaviours I didn’t deserve – stubbing cigarette ends on my bare skin, having sexual encounters with rank strangers. It took me a range of one-night stands that left me feeling empty to hit rock bottom and realise I was broken and needed to mend myself.
Yet to this day, I am haunted by my scarred puberty.
Poor Lolita never got a chance at healing. The man who helped her escape wished to exploit her further. She had to eventually marry a cripple and die in childbirth. Even in their last meeting, Humbert did not apologise for having damaged her, not even once. But I knew I had some control over my situation. I started by attending a couple of 12-step programmes and therapy. And that’s when I began believing that I didn’t deserve what was done to me, that I needed to feel what I was not allowed to, and grieve what all I lost. It took me a long while and a lot of healthy, functional people around to see what “normal” was. But to start the healing, I needed someone to apologise. So I asked for it. And my mother obliged.
Yet to this day, I am haunted by my scarred puberty. I find it hard to undress without the fear that someone might be watching, just ready to take a lunge at me. Sometimes, it only takes a moment for my lover’s face to change into the face of my father before everything stops being romantic. The flashes send chills down my spine; make me perspire.
Still for me the bigger loss is accepting that I can never have a healthy relationship with my father. There are days when I want to hug him but I stop as the memories of the past come rushing back. I want to have a father who I can go on budget trips with and with whom I can bitch about our relatives. I want him to give me head massages like my friend’s father does, without worrying about him trying to get a peek at my breasts. If nothing, I’d like to have the father who rode the four-year-old me to school, wearing similar raincoats, singing our song – the lyrics of which are now long forgotten. The truth is, that I want him to be a part of my life because I still do not hate my father. I meet him every time in the hope of receiving the love that I was denied. I wish he’d be aware enough to apologise so we can cry a life out and probably move on, so I can tell him about my life, my love.
But in the past couple of years, my visits back home have only grown shorter and less frequent. I’m especially hesitant about giving in to a part of me that wants to sit my father down and confront him about what he did to me, look him in the eye as he apologises, and have him accept that he failed as a father. I haven’t gathered the courage yet. Someday I will. Until then I keep convincing myself that it won’t turn out to be like that last encounter between Lolita and Humbert.
About the writer: Vaishnavi is living the unconventional life that your conventions warn you about. Doing so, she lives in tiny outhouses with moths and butterflies decorating the walls and hopes to eat what she grows herself. She swears by candle lit rooms and pillow castles and hopes she never has to return to a city again.