Her name is Debra, she is 33, a professional woman, married. She has no children. There's a reason for that. Her own childhood was a nightmare of threats, beatings and sexual abuse by her father, a military test pilot who raised his children with a belt. It was a childhood so painful that Debra -- like many such victims -- suppressed it for more than 15 years.
She says both her parents were alcoholics and her father beat all of the children -- three boys and an older sister -- "until my mother would scream, 'You're going to kill them.' " The children were expected to be quiet and not to speak unless spoken to. "I lived under a death threat. Anything we did wrong, he'd use the threat: 'I'll kill you.' " She grew up with the fear that someone was going to stab her in the back. She was never allowed to visit friends. "That was isolation, so he wouldn't be found out."
She says the sexual abuse began in the sixth grade, when her sister moved out. "She had been the target." It lasted all during high school. Debra says her father would come into her bedroom at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, drunk. "I would wake up just petrified." To this day, Debra is terrified of sex. "What happens is I visualize this monster on top of me saying, 'This is what I don't want guys to do to you. This is what they'll try. Don't let them do it.' "
She has been married twice, both times because she was afraid to live alone. "I told my first husband my father would sometimes wake me up in the middle of the night and do things to me," but, she says, her husband didn't understand what this had done to her. Nor, in fact, did she. She underwent psychiatric counseling for six months after her divorce, never mentioning what had happened.
She remarried five years ago, but by April 1983, was deeply depressed and suffering from medical problems. Her doctor, who was also a psychiatrist, put her on an antidepressant medication, which she is still taking. For the next year, she remained under his care and that of a woman psychologist. By June 1984, she was in group therapy. "I mentioned something about being beaten. This one woman was horrified and started asking questions and it all came out. I just started talking more and more about him. The therapist was shocked. She said we've finally hit the core of things." For the next six months, Debra woke up at 2 and 3 in the morning, dreaming about her father.
She and her husband have not had sex for a year. "I just have to learn about sex again. My body just freezes up." Her second marriage is rocky. "He's to the point of saying, 'Deb, you can't let this run your life.' But it is running my life. I just don't know how to resolve it."
She has tried to talk to her sister. "She said, 'Debra, I hope I've put it all behind me,' and my response was, 'That's the thing: you probably haven't.' " Her sister's four children "have no discipline. She went to the other extreme." She says her sister is seeing a marriage counselor, but won't tell the counselor about her childhood.
Debra tried talking to one of her brothers recently. "He changed the subject back to his divorce. He couldn't handle it. I slammed my fist on the table and said, 'Goddammit, what happened to me is much worse than your divorce!' " After he left, she phoned him. "He said, 'You opened my eyes to a lot of things.' " Her brothers don't have children. "They're afraid of what they would do." She has the same fears about raising children.
"I have a lot of defenses I learned as a child, but now I'm an adult. When someone around me gets angry, I hear these jail walls coming up around me and I just tune it out. I don't hear anything." She wonders how her schoolteachers didn't know when she showed up with welts on her legs, but then she says: "I'd lean against the walls and withdraw so they wouldn't find out.
"I felt that I was terrible, that it was my fault, especially the beatings. I felt I must be the worst kid in the world. Had I not had three brothers, I probably wouldn't have made it.
"I see shows like 'The Cosby Show.' I watch it to learn what a family is supposed to be. I can't believe that is what goes on. He sits on the sofa with his arm around his little daughter, talking to her. That to me is very strange."
Once, when she was 24, Debra tried to talk to her mother. "She said 'I don't want to know about it.' " And once, after her divorce, she spoke to her father. "I told him I wanted him to know before he went to his grave that I knew everything that went on between him and me, and I hated every minute of it, but I wanted him to know he was my father and I still loved him. He started crying. He said, 'I did the best I could.' "