No one in the family acknowledged what was happening under their roof at night. But whatever tensile strands that held the family in place began to wither under the strain. Jim, the bright, engaging boy, and Carol, the vivacious girl, ceased to exist. In their place, grew poor approximations.
Carol became a moody introvert. She no longer made friends, and the friends she had, she lost.
She cried constantly, asking her mother, “What’s wrong with me? How come nobody likes me?”
Jim turned angry. A good student early on, he had to repeat the fourth grade, the year he says his father began to abuse him. It took very little to set him off.
Eileen Gray, Jim and Carol’s elder sister, is 68 and lives outside Tallahassee, Fla. She said she was abused emotionally and verbally abused by their father but never abused sexually, and only learned of her siblings’ experience when they told her about it, later in life.
“The three of us would fight with each other but at the same time we would make deals to protect each other from our father’s wrath,” she said in an email. “It was like ‘a war zone.’ We never knew what mood he would be in, and we adjusted our actions accordingly.”
Carol moved out as soon as she was able. Jim followed suit in 1973, the year he graduated high school, the year their mother died. The family blew apart.
At 23, Carol bottomed out when she tried to kill herself. She would find herself drawn to religion. Twice she went through the application process for Catholic religious orders and twice the community cited her father’s drinking and mental illness as reasons to reject her. After her second rejection, she cried herself to sleep.
Then a nun named Sister Faith urged her to give it one more try. She did, and her acceptance led her to Maryland, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Mississippi and, finally, Tuscaloosa, Ala., where she now serves as regional director for Catholic Social Services of West Alabama, providing food, counseling and financial assistance to predominantly low-income families.